YAZOO CITY — Two-term Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour is well known nationally for orchestrating the greatest midterm majority sweep of the 20th century in 1994 by helping facilitate GOP control of the House, the Senate, a majority of state legislatures and the governorship of 31 states.
But since the Yazoo City native, 1973 Ole Miss law school grad and political director of the Reagan White House mentioned a possible run for governor in 2003, there’s been a sparked local interest in Barbour the businessman.
The Mississippi Business Journal caught up with Barbour, 54, at his Yazoo City office, where he is a lobbyist, lawyer and partner of Barbour, Griffith & Rogers law firm, and asked him about his business ventures, the state and national economy, the Nissan deal and Mississippi’s economic progress.
Mississippi Business Journal: Tell us about your business interests in Washington, D.C. and Mississippi.
Haley Barbour: Our law firm has offices here and in Washington, D.C., I’ve been a board member for Mississippi Chemical for a number of years. Until we sold them, I was a board member at Deposit Guaranty and Skytel. I’m also involved with companies like Air2Lan, but just on an investment basis.
MBJ: You and Tom Boggs, a prominent Democrat, assembled an investor group of more than 60 businessmen and opened the Washington, D.C. eatery, The Caucus Room, that Newsweek described as a place that’s “about who you meet, not what you eat.” How’s that venture going?
HB: It’s received great reviews and we’re pleased with the response. It’s a real fun restaurant where we tip our hat to bipartisanship after we’ve been on different sides during the day, but can be civil and friendly after work.
MBJ: What’s your take on the state economy?
HB: Even though we’ve been in a recession that may not have been statistically a recession until March of last year, we started seeing an economic weakness in the summer of 2000 or earlier in Mississippi. It’s compounded for Mississippi because we’re in an agricultural depression, and between the strong dollar and foreign competition, a lot of traditional industries, like furniture and apparel, are struggling. The oil and gas industry is in a slump and many people believe the onshore production in Mississippi is not likely to reach the levels of the 1980s and earlier, ever again.
MBJ: In the last several decades, how has the nation’s perception of Mississippi changed?
HB: When I went to work for President Gerald Ford in 1976, people around the country weren’t very high on the state and we suffered from a little of an inferiority complex. While I was chairman of the Republican Party, I was struck by how many people noted that Mississippi was providing national leadership and innovation from people like Sen. Trent Lott, Netscape’s Jim Barksdale, FedEx Chief Fred Smith, WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers and SkyTel’s John Palmer. That extends to (Oakland Raiders wide receiver) Jerry Rice and to (country superstars) Faith Hill and Leann Rimes. In all sorts of fields of endeavors, Mississippi has people at the top and that’s been an important part of our attitude today of knowing we can compete with anybody.
MBJ: How has Mississippi changed in the last decade?
HB: The 1990s — the decade of the best economy in Mississippi’s history — was sparked by new industries like communications, which now has a major presence in the state. A number of new defense contractors, like Lockheed-Martin, Boeing and Raytheon, joined Ingalls in Mississippi operations. The gaming industry had an enormous impact. Not only was our economy strong and employment high, but also it became more diverse, more reflective of the nation’s economy. Even though growth and diversity are healthy, the days when a national recession might have little impact on Mississippi are gone. All of this growth in the 1990s was, of course, prior to the Nissan announcement. I’m very optimistic about our economic future but we are going to have to deal with the effects of this recession in the short term.
MBJ: How can Mississippi leverage the Nissan success into more growth?
HB: Suppliers, vendors and other businesses that will service and provide products for Nissan can be a magnet for other businesses that have nothing to do with the automobile industry the same way companies like Lextron, who already serve that industry, have a much bigger presence.
We have a lot of opportunities to bring in substantial industries like we did in the ‘90s. In that decade, we really proved ourselves to the country and the world. Thirty years ago, most people in the U.S. didn’t think much of Mississippi’s economic prospects and weren’t considering coming down here. Thirty years ago, a lot of people in Mississippi didn’t either and we weren’t confident in ourselves. The ‘90s proved we could compete for jobs and be a successful place for industry to locate. When we come out of this recession, it’s important that the leadership in this state gets us back to the “can do” attitude we had then.
MBJ: What else needs to be addressed to facilitate economic progress in the state?
HB: Education is so important to a quality workforce. In the 1990s, we brought in a lot of high paying jobs, so it’s natural that there’s some pressure on the labor supply. I’m confident we can meet the needs of Nissan and others.
MBJ: Even though the gubernatorial election campaign won’t get underway until next year, you’ve mentioned an interest in running for governor and are often quoted as saying now would be the time. When will you make a decision?
HB: I don’t have to make a decision about running for governor until the fall and I’m not going to. It doesn’t serve any purpose to do anything right now other than visit with people and talk to groups so that when I do decide, I can make an informed decision.
Whether I run or not, the Republican candidate will be a strong candidate for governor. The prospects that the next governor will be a Republican are pretty dang good whether it’s me or somebody else.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org</a.