Dearing faces first year since 1980 without Jackson job

Published 12:01 am Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ben Hillyer/The Natchez Democrat — For the first time since 1980, Bob Dearing begins life outside the Legislature. In the time he was senator, Dearing was proud of helping fund many projects including the Natchez bluff stabilization and the Natchez Trails projects, both projects have helped shape the image of the Natchez riverfront.

NATCHEZ — When Bob Dearing was a freshman senator, he received a call from a reporter asking why he hadn’t cast a vote on an important piece of legislation while it was still in committee.

Dearing replied that he wasn’t a member of the committee, but the reporter protested, saying he had seen Dearing cast votes in the committee before.

“I told him, ‘Oh, those are only raise your hand votes,’” Dearing said.

The committee in question, appropriations, only had room for 21 members, which meant that many senators — especially the freshmen, who hadn’t paid their proper legislative dues — were forced to sit it out.

That didn’t stop Dearing from attending the meetings, or — from time to time — casting voice or hand votes.

“I attended the finance and appropriations (committee) meetings to see which one I wanted to be on,” he said.

“The chairman told me, ‘You’ve got better attendance than any member I have.’”

That was more than 30 years ago. Sunday, Dearing begins life outside of the Legislature for the first time since 1980. He lost a bid for re-election in November.

Elected in 1979, Dearing said he decided to run for former Mayor Troy Watkins’ senate seat at Watkins’ request after the then-senator decided to launch a bid for lieutenant governor. Watkins wasn’t successful, but Dearing was.

When he took office, the state Capitol building was under renovation, and the Legislature was meeting in the old Central High School.

The senate met in the library and members of the house met in the auditorium. The library was on the second floor, and Dearing said the senators would walk out onto the balcony to watch the house members work.

It wasn’t until December 1982 that he saw the first session convene in the Capitol building, but it was a session of which he was particularly proud — the passage of the Educational Reform Act.

“(It) was one of our first monumental pieces of legislation — that’s where we first established statewide kindergartens,” Dearing said. “They already had kindergartens in Natchez — they had for 50 years — but other school districts around the state did not at that time.”

That’s by no means the only piece of legislation Dearing is proud of passing. Dearing said he’s happy to be associated with the bill that created Natchez, Inc, a law that has already started to pay off.

“That is going to bring in several thousand construction and manufacturing jobs into the area,” he said.

Likewise, Dearing said the Vision 21 Highway Program to four-lane Mississippi’s state highways, which he authored while serving as the chairman of the highway and transportation committee, will have a lasting impact, Dearing said.

“It’s a known fact that four-lanes is where industry goes.”

Some bills weren’t as easy to get through the Legislature, and it took seven years to get an animal cruelty bill Dearing authored passed.

Natchez resident Annette Byrne deserves some of the credit for motivating him to hammer on the animal cruelty law, he said.

“She stayed on me to put the word ‘cat’ in the (cruelty) statute,” he said. “It wasn’t even a misdemeanor to harm a cat back then.”

That single piece of legislation generated attention from a far wider audience than Dearing anticipated.

“I received over 1,000 e-mails from all over the world on that one piece of legislation, and I answered personally on each of them,” he said.

Another hard-fought bill, one to eliminate the withholding of income tax from retirement income, took the senator from 1983 to 1996 to get passed.

And it wasn’t just finagling legislation that Dearing had to do during that time — he had to keep up an insurance business back home.

That meant some days he would have to mix travel to the Legislature with business travel.

“I would call on some insurance accounts going to Jackson, I would work some accounts on the way going back down — I might take (U.S.) 61 up and I-55 on the way back down,” he said.

“It is not an easy task trying to juggle that.”

Some legislators would be elected to one or two terms and have to quit because they couldn’t balance work, law-making and family life.

“That is the thing about serving in the Legislature — you are away from the family so much. My wife was the mother and the father for six months of the year, for which I am always grateful,” Dearing said.

“I called home five or six times a day checking on my kids, my wife.”

When election time rolled around, Dearing would often take his children with him to knock on doors, a part of campaigning he said he will miss.

“The majority of people who are home when you’re going door-to-door are glad to see you,” Dearing said. “They don’t want something just left at the step — they want to talk to you.”

Sometimes voters gave words of support, and sometimes — they didn’t.

“Some of them bent my ear pretty good — outside of Adams County, whenever somebody would ask me ‘Are you a Republican or a Democrat?’, I always knew where they were coming from,” Dearing said. “They would say, ‘When you run as a Republican we will vote for you.’

“But I never held it against anybody for not voting for me, even this time.”

The decision to cast some votes can “make your stomach turn,” and not every day in the senate was perfect. Dearing said he saw matters come to blows more than once, “but it was always between a member of the house and a senator, never between two senators.”

But it was a job he enjoyed, 32 years “of mostly pleasant memories.”

“The ladies and gentlemen you serve with are friends you make for life,” Dearing said.

“I am going to miss serving.”