Known for his unwavering bulldog tenacity, Gov. Kirk Fordice was blunt, outspoken and sometimes downright cantankerous. His tenure was also marked by controversial shenanigans, failed legislative battles and racial tensions.
But Mississippi’s 50th governor, well known for his honesty and passion, was a favorite of rural conservatives. The small business owner from Vicksburg turned self-made millionaire, willed himself to the state’s highest office as Mississippi’s first Republican-elected governor since 1874, was re-elected for an unprecedented consecutive term, and led a Republican revolution that resulted in a true two-party state.
Fordice, who served as governor from 1992 to 2000, died September 7 at University Medical Center in Jackson at the age of 70 after losing a battle with leukemia. He had endured health problems for years, overcoming prostate cancer in 1993, surviving a near-fatal automobile accident in 1996, undergoing cancer treatments again in 1998 and requiring gallbladder surgery in 2000.
“Kirk Fordice was a true Mississippi success story,” said Gov. Haley Barbour, who had known Fordice for 35 years. “He was a successful Vicksburg businessman who … achieved what many believed impossible at the time. He focused our state’s energies on economic development during his terms and moved Mississippi’s economy into a new era of growth. He imprinted his brand of fiscal conservatism on Mississippi’s budget by creating the first-ever ‘rainy day fund’ and leaving Mississippi with a $350-million surplus. He (also) introduced welfare reform to Mississippi.”
Born in Memphis, Tenn., February 10, 1934, Fordice earned an undergraduate degree in civil engineering from Purdue University in 1956. A year later, he earned a master’s degree in industrial management from Purdue. After finishing graduate school, he served two years active duty as an engineer officer in the First Infantry Division of the U.S. Army and became airborne certified. In 1977, he retired from the Army Reserve with the rank of colonel after serving 18 years. An engineer by trade, he established Fordice Construction Company in Vicksburg and adopted Mississippi as his home before running for chief executive of the state.
“Gov. Fordice will be remembered as a businessman’s governor,” said Marty Wiseman, Ph.D., executive director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. “When he decided to run, his appeal was as a contractor, talking the language of one who had to make the payroll every Friday. He managed to strike just the right chord for all of those in the same boat who were trying to make their businesses work. He promised to keep the government out of their hair as much as possible, and he had the right message.”
‘Kicking the door open’
Fordice, who had never held any elected position other than a Warren County election commissioner, will also be remembered for “kicking the door open” for the Republican Party in Mississippi.
“At the time he was elected, there was still a big question mark over the Republican Party as to whether or not the voters were yet ready to elect a statewide official to govern Mississippi,” said Wiseman. “They’d elected Republican congressmen, but hadn’t been able to break through in state elections. Fordice, with only $450,000 or $500,000 in campaign money, which seems atrociously small these days, was able to kick that door open. If he had decided to run a third time, I wouldn’t have bet against him. He made it possible for us to have the equally divided two-party state we have today. Gov. Haley Barbour and other statewide elected officials are harvesting the fruit that was nurtured during the Fordice administration.”
Wiseman said Fordice was “a good one to inaugurate Republican politics at the statewide level because he had carried water for the Republican Party since the Goldwater days. In addition to it being a big job for him, it was an honor also.”
Mississippi Republican Party chairman Jim Herring said Fordice “was very supportive of me in my role as state chairman and we had many conversations on how I should conduct myself.”
Herring described Fordice “as a resolute public servant — steadfast and firm in his desire to make things better for Mississippians.”
During Fordice’s last year in office, the state’s unemployment rate was 3.8%, the lowest jobless rate in 26 years.
“He will be greatly missed,” said Herring. “His record of achievement is strong and history will smile on Gov. Fordice.”
Keeping his word
Not long before he was elected governor in 1991, Fordice told Jimmy Heidel, director of the Vicksburg-Warren County Economic Development Foundation, that when he took office, he wanted Heidel to head the Mississippi Department of Community and Economic Development (now Mississippi Development Authority). The two had worked together for the foundation.
“When he told me that, I said, ‘thank you’ and ‘we’ll see’,” said Heidel. “He called me the day after he was elected and said, ‘Are you going to take this job or not?’ And I said, ‘I’ve got a few questions to ask you first.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ve got a few to ask you so let’s meet and talk.’ It took us about 15 to 20 minutes to settle everything and we were together for eight years.”
Even though the duo disagreed on various issues, “it was delightful to have a friend that was your boss,” said Heidel.
“He’d have his point of view; I’d have mine,” he said. “Sometimes things went his way, other times mine. When we made a decision, though, he never backed down. He was a man of his word. It was true teamwork.”
From 1989 to 1991, Fordice formed valuable friendships nationwide while serving as president of the Associated General Contractors of America.
“Gov. Fordice met so many people in corporate America,” said Heidel. “When we were on the state level together, I could put him on a cold call to a CEO, and within five minutes, he’d know somebody they knew. That made for some good relationships.”
While trying to recruit Caterpillar to Booneville, Fordice learned that the company had selected a site in Jackson, Tenn. He was not to be outdone, said Heidel.
“I got him on the phone with the company president, and when we broke ground in Booneville a few months later, the president told everyone that the only reason they were here was because ‘your governor called us,’” he said, with a chuckle.
Andy Taggart, who served as chief of staff during the governor’s first term, said Fordice’s greatest legacy “is also one of the rarest you see in public life — that of a public official who said exactly what was on his mind without sugar coating.”
“He meant what he said,” said Taggart. “No one ever had to doubt where he stood on any issue. Even (the political adversaries) who disagreed with the governor admired him because they never had to wonder what he meant or where he stood.”
Former Republican state representative Ken Stribling agreed. He once told The Washington Post that when people talk to Fordice, “he gives them the verbal equivalent of the middle finger,” and called him “an equal opportunity antagonizer.”
“May the governor rest in peace,” Stribling said last Tuesday. “I may not have always liked what he said or did, but I respected him as a member of the party to which I belong.”
Dick Molpus, who served as Secretary of State during Fordice’s first term and was defeated by Fordice during the 1995 gubernatorial election, said, “he and I shared philosophical differences on the role of government but I never doubted that his convictions were heartfelt.
“He was a strong personality, and I was too, and we got along just fine,” he said. “We will all mourn his passing.”
Fordice left a powerful legacy of efficiency and growth to the people of Mississippi, driven by tax cuts — he led the abolition of the marriage penalty and the state capital gains tax — and a fair regulatory environment, said Taggart.
“He was my friend, and a real professional and philosophical mentor,” he said. “I will miss him greatly, and Mississippi will miss his principled leadership.”
John Arledge, who served as deputy press secretary and later as director of communications for Fordice, said, “we’re all going to miss him a great deal. He was a great boss, and ended up being a good friend.”
Perry Nations, executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Mississippi, said Fordice would go down in history as being “one of the most business-minded governors we’ve ever had, prior to this administration.”
“He left the state in a whole lot better shape than he found it,” he said. “He’s going to be sorely missed in this industry and in this state. He probably suffered more than any of us will ever know. It’s a sad day for Mississippi.”
Finding pots of gold
Even though he was reportedly personally opposed to casinos, Fordice oversaw the advent of gaming in Mississippi, which led to an explosive growth in casino resort construction and burgeoning state coffers from gaming taxes.
“While running the gaming commission for six years, Gov. Fordice really stayed out of our hair,” said Paul Harvey, who the three governor-appointed gaming commissioners — Bob Engram, Stuart Irby and Bill Gresham — hired as the first executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission. “I have great respect for that. I only received three business calls from him, and those were only in response to a constituent asking him something. He was a great boss, and I’ve always felt a very strong and meaningful politician in Mississippi. When I ran for Congress as a Republican candidate in the fifth district, he was very helpful to me. I’m really going to miss him a lot.”
Engram, who crafted the infrastructure requirement for casinos to invest equally in hotel rooms and gaming boats, said Fordice “never once interfered with any of the decisions the gaming commission made. For a politician, that’s saying a helluva lot.
Even though Engram said he “really didn’t know Fordice very well” when appointed gaming commissioner, “I gained an awful lot of respect for him.”
“I traveled with him to South America on missions looking for trade for the Port (of Gulfport),” he said. “I got to know him very closely, and felt he was a very close friend. When I heard this morning that he passed, it touched me very deeply.”
Longtime Choctaw Chief Phillip Martin, who became close friends with Fordice after he was elected in 1991, called him “an exceptional man.”
“I liked him because of his frankness about issues as well as his support of the rights of the tribe to have gaming,” he said. “I was surprised to learn that he knew a lot about Indian history and was therefore more sympathetic to the tribe.”
Martin recalled Fordice calling him, asking if the tribal council would drop the lawsuit against the state concerning gaming.
“He told me he’d advocate a tribal state compact (that regulates gaming on the reservation) within a month,” said Martin. “The tribe dropped the lawsuit and he kept his word. The governor beforehand (Democrat Ray Mabus) had been contentious, but we got through it all. If it weren’t for that compact and gaming here in East Mississippi, we couldn’t have made such a contribution to the state’s economy and created 9,000 jobs.”
In a statement, Fordice’s four children said their father “loved this country and especially Mississippi.”
“We know that heaven for him now is a place very much like it.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.