Bay St. Louis — Joseph Patrick Compretta, better known as J.P., has been interested in politics since high school. He says he loved it back then and was elected president of his class every year. In his seventh term representing Hancock County in the House of Representatives, the 59-year-old Democrat was elected speaker pro tem during the 2004 session.
Of that milestone he said, “I’m pleased for myself and for the Coast. My election and the key committee chairmanships assigned to members of the coastal delegation definitely show a change of attitudes.”
At the time of his election, House Speaker Billy McCoy made it clear he wanted Compretta to be active and stand at the podium presiding every day. “He did me a great favor getting me involved,” Compretta says. “It was a blessing as things turned out. He’s a great guy.”
Compretta stepped up and assumed more responsibility due to McCoy’s illness last year. Those duties included filling in for the speaker at joint legislative budget hearings.
“That really opened my eyes and helped me get a good handle on everything in the state,” he said. “The economists are seeing modest growth for the state and think it will continue.”
The speaker pro tem says there will be no committee changes except where there are vacancies but he does expect the house tourism and gaming committees to be expanded due to their increased workloads.
He feels he’s been blessed to have the opportunity to represent the people of his district, noting that he’s had only two opponents in seven elections. Helping his constituents is the greatest satisfaction of serving in the Legislature.
“Even as a young person I wanted to help people, and practicing law I encountered a lot of people having trouble with government,” he said. “I’ve learned to be responsive, and I answer all calls and letters.”
But it was frustrating to realize how slowly the wheels of government turn. “I had ideas of how I would change things when I first went up there, but I found out the wheels turn real slow and you have to keep working at it,” he recalls. “The Legislature is a very diverse group with 122 house members and 52 senators.”
One of the biggest changes Compretta has observed in his 26 years in the Legislature is the increased diversity of the House of Representatives. He sees that change as a good thing. Also, he believes there is less sectionalism now than when he was first elected.
“What’s good for any section of the state is good for Mississippi, and we’re trying to put aside sectionalism,” he said. “There was more control from the Delta back then. We have good representation from the Coast now, and in the race for pro tem, I had support for all over and from some Republicans and some African-Americans.”
He says he has always tried to be fair with everyone regardless of party, race and gender. As chairman of the Local and Private Committee he dealt with all house members on matters that were dear to the people they represented.
In addition to serving as speaker pro tem, Compretta also serves on the Judiciary A, Marine Resources and Ways and Means committees and is chairman of the Management Committee.
After graduation from the University of Southern Mississippi, he married Kay Dorich, and the young husband enrolled at the Jackson School of Law. Since they lived across the street from the law school, Compretta agreed to be the facility’s custodian and janitor to help pay tuition. He cleaned up and turned off the lights every night.
Both he and Kay had big families in Bay St. Louis and Waveland and wanted to return to Hancock County to live. He taught high school government classes while waiting to take the state bar exam.
“Teaching is not a piece of cake, and I grew to have a lot of respect for teachers,” he says. “From that experience, I have always been a huge supporter of education, and I think other legislators need to spend time in a classroom.”
After a brief teaching stint, Compretta opened a solo practice on Main Street in Bay St. Louis. These days he says one-third of the telephone calls he receives are legislative business, an increase since he became speaker pro tem.
“Serving in the Legislature is not part time any more. It’s becoming full time,” he said, “but my wife told me not to complain because I asked for it.”
State representative is the only elected position Compretta has held, but he did stay out of the Legislature one term to serve as assistant district attorney. He is also a former county and city prosecutor.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at firstname.lastname@example.org.