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Where legislators go to eat, drink and get merry

Power places shape the political landscape in Jackson

JACKSON – Chasing down legislators at places other than the Capitol is a game in itself. But savvy lobbyists and reporters know where state lawmakers go to eat, drink and get merry – and to mull over the more than 2,600 bills filed during the 2004 legislative session.

“More business gets done at night at the hangouts than it does during the day at the Capitol,” said Davis Brister, a reporter for WLBT-TV, the NBC affiliate in Jackson.

Their business packs a big wallop. When legislators are in session, they account for a minimum of $842,000 in meals and hotel charges, said Kay Maghan, spokesperson for the MetroJackson Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“Our holiday season was real good, and since the Legislature convened, we’ve seen a continuation of good times,” said Larry Walley, assistant manager of Char, a Jackson restaurant specializing in prime steaks and fresh seafood.

One fact is certain: Mississippi lawmakers like beef.

“They seem to like steaks,” said Maghan. “They’re the beef-eating council.”

Tico Hoffman, owner of Tico`s Restaurant in Ridgeland, readily agreed.

“They really like their meat,” he said.

State legislators also like privacy. The Back Room at Tico`s, a popular meeting place for legislative leaders, has often been referred to as “the second Capitol” or “the other governor`s mansion.” Hoffman simply calls it “revenue.”

“It`s isolated,” he said. “That`s my hiding place.”

The secluded room is accessible only through the crowded and noisy kitchen. An old-style wall phone, with former House Speaker Tim Ford among the powerbrokers on the speed dial, hangs prominently on the back wall. Wooden louvers that cover a row of windows allow low lights to be seen glowing faintly in the wee morning hours. During legislative sessions, reporters could often size up the status of pending legislation by the hours that court was in session in The Room or the number of heavy-duty Ford trucks left behind in the parking lot.

“Tim used it a lot because he liked the privacy in the back, and he’d take some of his committee people back there to get away from lobbyists,” said Hoffman. “If he ate in the restaurant, people would want to come talk to him.”

For the most part, diners are respectful of legislators’ privacy, especially when they are in groups, said John Dennery, owner of Dennery`s Restaurant in Jackson, who always makes sure that tables are spaced apart “just so.”

“If there are representatives of a certain industry or employment group entertaining or trying to capture a minute of a lawmaker`s time, somebody else isn`t going to come along and horn in,” he said.

Besides, lobbying isn`t about wining and dining, said lobbyist Donna E. Mabus. “It`s about whining and begging,” she quipped.

Schimmel`s restaurant is as popular for its privacy curtain as its fine dining and cocktails. “All the big shots will sit down at a table and pull that curtain around and start talking,” an observer said, chuckling.

Even the waitstaff at area restaurants is discreet. “By the nature of their jobs, they’re in and out of the tables so much,” said Walley. “They’re not privy to conversations.”

Diann Alford, owner of Two Sisters Kitchen in Jackson, featuring home-style cooking, said the waitstaff is trained to accommodate “legislators who want to get in and back to the session in a hurry and those who want to relax and toss things over.”

Quite a few lawmakers and lobbyists smoke cigars at the Habana Smoke Shoppe in Jackson, where a keg of beer is stashed in the back, and the den features big-screen TVs with digital audio and an unending supply of compactly rolled tobacco leaves. Every Thursday night, a faithful following of several hundred cigar aficionados journey to “Cigars Under the Stars,” held every month in a different location.

“We all say the legislators don`t do a lot of stuff right, but coming to Jackson the first quarter of the year is excellent,” said Habana co-owner Brett Baxter, who said business increased 30% in January.

Mendee Malouf Alford, innkeeper of Old Capitol Inn, said a handful of legislators stay at the quaint Jackson bed-and-breakfast, and the inn`s reception business “definitely picks up during the legislative session,” she said, “especially this year, when Gov. Barbour was inaugurated.”

Ruth Moore, general manager of the 52-room Microtel Inn in Jackson, housed 22 legislators last year, 30 this year, and already has a waiting list for 2005. Lawmakers usually pay the monthly rate of $832.50, including tax. In the evenings, they hang out in the hotel den where they snack and play dominoes while chatting about the day`s work.

“Legislators are very happy staying here,” said Moore. “They go home on the weekends and don`t have to check out. When they come in Monday morning, they`ll say ‘Hi, mom, we’re home.’ We really enjoy having them.”

Since January, Carol Simmons, co-owner of The Fairview Inn in Jackson, has hosted several legislative receptions and private dinners and parties. Lawmakers and lobbyists “choose us because it`s a pretty place, the food is good, and it`s a different atmosphere from the clubs and hotels.”

“We have private rooms you can`t find in other places,” she said. “We’re not the University Club. You don`t have to belong to come use Fairview.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.


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