The folks at BIPEC have been burning the midnight oil. During an election year, it’s their job to grade candidates for legislative and senior-level judicial races. At last count, the group had endorsed about 75 candidates.
“Our role is similar to that of a stockbroker,” said Richard D. Wilcox, president of the Business and Industry Political Education Committee (BIPEC), a member-driven, non-partisan political research organization in Jackson. “Looking at the races is like looking at the stock market. Our sole function is to conduct political research so business and professional people can make political decisions. People go to a stockbroker to get information to help make investments. It doesn’t guarantee anything, it’s simply a guide. This is no different.”
Established in 1980, BIPEC was based on a similar organization in Louisiana. Only 15 such organizations exist nationwide, Wilcox said.
“We don’t have any issues and we don’t lobby,” he said. “This enables us to do things without worrying about stepping on toes. We create a measuring stick for each legislator without any consideration for where they stand on any given issue. We give our members a true evaluation of where incumbents stand philosophically. When people call us up and ask us how we stand on a particular issue, we say however the broad-based business community stands on it.”
BIPEC does not research federal or statewide candidates for office, he said.
“Statewide races tend to be ‘sexy’ races,” Wilcox said. “They’re the ones people get excited about because all of the carrying on that goes with statewide races. But the legislators are the elected people that make the laws we all live under. While the statewide elections are important, a lot of people get involved in those races, such as the Democratic and Republican parties. They put a lot more emphasis on the governor’s race because it’s their figurehead race.”
Every year, the staff of three, with some outsourcing assistance, evaluates and grades the entire Legislature. In an election year, each candidate completes a thoroughly detailed questionnaire and in-depth interview. This year, there are 20 open seats.
“Based strictly on philosophy and from an economic standpoint, we ask who is going to do the best job for free enterprise,” Wilcox said. “Then we tell our members.”
Companies, business professionals and more than 30 business and professional trade associations are on BIPEC’s roll.
Based on census data, public opinion polls and vote histories, each district is researched. Then, the 45-member BIPEC board makes recommendations.
“People don’t realize the number of non-incumbent candidates that run for the Legislature,” he said. “Statewide, that could add up to a couple of hundred folks.”
The turnover rate in the Legislature is usually 25%. In 1995, the turnover was 15%, one of the lowest in several decades. Today, it’s slightly less than 15%. Wilcox attributes the decrease in turnover to party identification, the state of the economy and a qualifying deadline change.
“Most districts are driven by party identification and having very few swing seats eliminates some turnover,” he said. “The party situation is more stable now than it was 20 years ago when it was dominated by the Democratic Party.”
In 1994, the laws changed to move the qualifying deadline for legislative candidates from May to March, Wilcox said.
“By moving the deadline from the end of the legislative session to the middle, it automatically reduced the number of people that challenged incumbents,” he said. “What used to happen is that people would watch the session, get disgusted and decide to run. By moving the qualifying deadline to the middle of the session, not a lot has happened at that point so the general public hasn’t gotten mad at anybody yet. When someone decides to run, it’s usually too late. The deadline’s passed.”
When the economy is good, people are generally satisfied with status quo, Wilcox said.
“If people have decent jobs and the economy’s doing reasonably well, they don’t want to change anything,” he said. “Look at the Clinton stuff on the national level. It’s the same mindset. If the economy had been in bad shape, Bill Clinton wouldn’t be president any more. People may feel strongly about a lot of issues, but the economy’s the big thing.”
BIPEC does not keep track of its success rate because that’s not important, Wilcox said.
“Changes are normally incremental,” he said. “Just a small handful of people in the right places greatly influences what happens in the Legislature. If four or five of the stronger legislators in each chamber, regardless of philosophy, are defeated, it’s a major change in the Legislature.”
Next year, four of the nine Supreme Court justices are up for reelection. So are four of 10 court of appeals judges, Wilcox said.
“Potentially, you have eight high-level judicial races,” he said. “Those folks interpret what the Legislature does. In effect, they can write legislation. Those are the two bodies that we do our work around.”
BIPEC’s opposition includes organized labor groups, plaintiff lawyers and more radical consumer activist-types, Wilcox said.
“In Mississippi, the most active within that group are the plaintiff lawyers, particularly because of all the money they got from tobacco lawsuits,” he said. “A fair amount of that money has gone back into this year’s elections. Those (groups) tend to be our political enemies.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.