Jackson — Emily Wagster Pettus knows politics.
Since January 2001, Pettus has covered the always-fascinating world of state government in Mississippi for The Associated Press (AP).
Before moving to the AP, she worked for more than a decade as a reporter for The Clarion-Ledger. A 1989 graduate of the University of Mississippi with degrees in journalism and German, she has also worked for USA Today, The Vicksburg Post and The Oxford Eagle.
The Mississippi Business Journal chatted with Pettus about the challenges of covering government in the Magnolia State, what makes Mississippi’s political scene unique, and where she heads to see a political debate when it’s too hot at the Neshoba County Fair.
Mississippi Business Journal: When did your interest in politics begin, and what was the turning point in your life that led you to pursue a career in journalism?
Emily Wagster Pettus: I was raised in a home where my parents discussed politics at the dinner table, so I’ve been interested in it for as long as I can remember. I grew up in Texarkana, Texas, and my eighth grade English teacher recruited me to work for the junior high newspaper. I dropped my home economics class and signed up for journalism. I still can’t cook well, but I figured out what I wanted to do for a living. I never seriously considered being anything but a reporter.
MBJ: What makes politics in Mississippi unique, compared with other states in the nation?
EWP: Since graduating from Ole Miss in 1989, I’ve only worked in Mississippi. So, I don’t have any professional experiences to directly compare Mississippi to other states. I think what makes politics interesting here, though, is that the state is like a small community in many ways. There are not even six degrees of separation here; it’s more like two or three degrees in many cases. People always ask, “Where you from?” because they want to know (a) who your people are or (b) do you know their people. That influences the political interaction.
Despite this being a small state, it has produced some big political personalities of various persuasions. The current governor, Haley Barbour, has been a major force in shaping the national Republican Party for more than a decade. Former Gov. William Winter has been influential within the Democratic Party and in the larger national realm of racial reconciliation. And, of course, there are the two Evelyns — former Lt. Gov. Evelyn Gandy, a Democrat who broke new ground for Mississippi women in politics; and the late Evelyn McPhail, who served as co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee when Barbour was head of the party.
MBJ: What is the most challenging part of covering the Mississippi political scene?
EWP: So much of what happens here is influenced by history, so it’s a challenge to give perspective to stories without getting bogged down in too much detail. I’ve been fortunate to work with reporters and editors who have wonderful institutional memory. My Associated Press colleague, Jack Elliott Jr., has covered Mississippi politics for decades and is a walking encyclopedia of names, dates and issues.
MBJ: What has been the most interesting political story to cover and why?
EWP: It was never boring to cover Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice or Democratic Attorney General Mike Moore when they were in office. Fordice was, and Moore still is, a strong personality — and they were even more interesting in combination because, as you remember, they didn’t always get along. Their disputes were not only about personality; they were about deeply-held policy beliefs.
MBJ: What makes the Neshoba County Fair the best place to watch a political debate in Mississippi?
EWP: The Fair is the best place to watch a debate if you want to sweat, but the Bologna Performing Arts Center at Delta State is a pretty nice place if you want a comfy seat and air conditioning. The Neshoba County Fair is great for watching politicians interact with people. A lot of what goes on there is like performance art, with crowds of campaign supporters cheering, booing and waving signs. In a time when politicians in some parts of the country are running point-and-click campaigns almost exclusively based on TV and radio ads, it’s nice to see some old-fashioned human give-and-take. Plus, people at the Fair feed you. How good is that?
MBJ: Predict a few political headlines for 2005.
EWP: Everything is going to revolve around the budget. There will be a lot of discussion about public education, Medicaid and the possibility of state employee layoffs — all of which tie back to money. If the November special session was any indicator of things to come, there probably will be some personality conflicts, whether among legislators or between the legislative and executive branches.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.