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Redistricting heats up Mississippi politics

The Big Race: Pickering vs. Shows

Pictured left: Congressman Chip Pickering

Pictured below: Congressman Ronnie Shows with former Mississippi First Lady Pat Fordice

The squabble over redistricting in Mississippi is done. The fallout from the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing over Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. for a seat on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is still smoldering. Now the state is in the national headlines once again for what political pundits are calling the race of the year.

Roll Call editor Tim Curran described it best: “The redistricting-inspired race in Mississippi — between Reps. Ronnie Shows, a folksy Blue Dog Democrat, and Chip Pickering, the scion of a prominent Republican family — has got to be No. 1 with a bullet.

“It will test a pair of conservative, anti-abortion Baptists: one a rural Democrat willing to buck his own party but who draws enthusiastic support from African-American voters, the other a poster boy for the new Southern Republican establishment.”

Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government, said there’s “a lot of fire and intrigue to the race.”

“All five congressmen in the state are reaching their prime and have many years ahead of them,” he said. “It’s not a situation where one is ready to retire and we can spread out the other four. In addition to incumbents running against each other, throw in the controversy that has brewed over the confirmation hearings of Judge Pickering, the rejection along party lines, the fact that he’s the father of Chip Pickering, and the fact that we’re still in our infancy as a true two-party state makes for an intriguing atmosphere for the race.”

Political observers say the new district lines favor Pickering over Shows. Initially, the proposed district drawn by a Hinds County judge was 37% black. But when a federal panel intervened, a more traditional third district was drawn that is 30% black.

“It’ll be hard for Shows to pick that one up and make a move for himself,” said one political observer. “The redistricting decision was a huge victory for Chip.”

On March 14, the day of Pickering’s nomination vote, Jonathan Serrie of Fox News reported that earlier this month, intermediaries tried to broker an under-the-table deal where Senate Democrats would approve Judge Pickering if his son dropped his challenge to a state redistricting plan that would have favored Shows.

“Members of both parties admit knowing about the proposed deal, but claim they never gave it serious consideration,” he said. “Neither did political observers in Mississippi.”

The Clarion-Ledger’s perspective editor Sid Salter said, “We found it difficult to believe that anybody on Capitol Hill would believe that either party could pull off this deal with the devil.”

Pickering may curry favor with voters who want retribution, Wiseman said.

“Citizens may want to ‘win one for the Gipper’, with the Gipper being the judge and the opportunity to win being a vote for the son,” Wiseman said. “The way the liberal Democrats from the north characterized the state of Mississippi and a very respected federal judge from south Mississippi may provide a nudge for a number of people who consider themselves Independents and lean a little one way or another to say ‘I just resent it’.”

U.S. Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) said the rejection of Judge Pickering’s nomination by the Senate “may very well elect a Republican governor in Mississippi and it will certainly make it even more difficult for Democratic candidates to be successful in the South.”

The loss of Hyundai could play into the race because it would have been a boon to the Third District, which primarily consists of rural counties “hanging by their fingernails onto manufacturing jobs,” Wiseman said.

Charleigh Ford, executive director of the Columbus-Lowndes Economic Development Association, said Lowndes County, which now falls in the First District, represented by Republican Congressman Roger Wicker, “has taken a beating with job losses.”

“Rebuilding these towns will certainly be an issue,” Wiseman said. “Shows is a good campaigner in the forks of the roads of rural Mississippi, tapping into what remains of the old populist base of the district. Chip Pickering has a large number of good business and industrial contacts. They’ll certainly make that issue a part of the campaign plans.”

How important are district lines, Judge Pickering’s nomination and Hyundai to this race? Bargaining power, bragging rights, blame shifting. Political strings tugged from every direction. For example, Shows, who cannot afford to alienate black voters or white conservatives, was essentially silent on Pickering’s nomination until March 7, when he publicly supported him.

“In every tight race between a Republican and Democrat in this country there’s going to be a great deal of interest simply because we’ve got a U.S. House of Representatives that’s virtually even, with a slight Republican majority, and a 50-49-1 situation in the Senate with a slight Democratic majority,” Wiseman said.

The outcome of two popular incumbents battling for one seat could tip the partisan scales in an almost evenly divided Congress.

“When everything is absolutely even in this fight for the hearts and minds of the American public, then every single seat counts,” he said. “It’s like football inside the five-yard line. Every inch counts. We’ve chosen sides fairly evenly in the state too. We elected the governor in the House of Representatives. A lot of people had hoped for a two-party state and now we’ve got it.

“If you don’t want rough and tumble politics where one side doesn’t have to give a wit about what the other side says, then you don’t want two party politics.”

Business leaders in Mississippi have been reluctant to endorse one congressman over the other, but agree on business issues that should be addressed by both candidates before the fall election.

“We’re non-partisan, so we don’t get involved in any race,” said MEC president Blake Wilson. “However, consistently top issues for business in Mississippi are education, workforce, infrastructure and tort reform. There are opportunities for national tort reform as well as state tort reform.”

Odean Busby, chairman and CEO of Magee-based Citizens State Bank, said military spending would continue to be an issue because of the number of National Guard bases in the district.

Mitch Stennett, president of the Jones County Economic Development Authority, said both candidates helped local business leaders work with the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration to obtain a grant for a new technology park and both were instrumental in retaining commercial service at the regional airport.

“They’re on the same page, and I don’t foresee them taking a different stance on economic development issues,” he said.

Even though most of Jones County now falls in the Fourth District, represented by Democrat Gene Taylor, both candidates have Jones County roots. Shows, 55, who was first elected to Congress in 1998, was born there, and migrated to Sumrall as an adult. Pickering, 38, who was first elected to Congress in 1996, was born in Laurel. His father has been a federal judge for the Southern District of Mississippi since Oct. 2, 1990.

“Like al
l Mississippians, I regret we didn’t grow enough to retain all five districts,” said Ford.

Note: This is the first story of a three-part series. Upcoming issues will feature Q&As with Pickering and Shows.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com</a.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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