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Changing faces, changing politics seen in the Magnolia State

Editor’s Note: The first part of this story published last week covered the changing faces of Mississippi politics, including Heather Hudson, Josh Gregory, Jackie Richmond and Merle Flowers. Part two this week picks up with Erik Fleming, Joe Nosef and what the future holds for others entering the political fray in the Magnolia State.

The House Veteran

Erik Fleming, who represents parts of Clinton, Ridgeland and Northwest Jackson in the Mississippi House of Representatives, remembers very clearly a conversation he had with one of his political mentors in Chicago when he settled on a political career. “Do you want to be a rich politician or an honest one? Your answer to that question will determine what kind of impact you can have on the community,” Fleming said he was told. Fleming made the decision to treat public service as a calling rather than a career at that point.

Fleming was born and raised in Chicago and came to Mississippi via a scholarship to Jackson State University. During his studies at JSU, he worked as a volunteer on both the Ray Mabus and the Mike Moore campaigns in 1987, he was tapped for a paid position on Congressman Mike Parker’s campaign in 1988 and later worked on Ronnie Musgrove’s campaign for lieutenant governor in 1995.

Those campaigns served as valuable experience as Fleming ran for the State House, winning in 1999.

Fleming has carved out a reputation as one of the most activist and liberal members of the House, known for pre-filing scores of bills each session on topics that interest him.

As he spends more time in the House, Fleming said he’s learned how important building relationships and coalitions is in getting attention for the issues he believes in, a method he calls working “the process” to get what you want. “I’ve learned you can’t get frustrated by that — those are the rules of engagement that you have to play by,” Fleming said.

One of his particular causes is working on issues and programs to aid young people in the state, and that concern extends to his day job with the Mississippi Community Development Corporation as an abstinence counselor, going to schools to encourage students to refrain from sexual experimentation in their teen years. Fleming bridles at attempts to stereotype such programs as strictly conservative or Republican efforts. “Values are not party-oriented. Values are about your beliefs and how you were raised,” Fleming said, pointing out that as a legislator, he deals with the results of poor decisions that these same teenagers may make in the coming years.

At 39, Fleming is in the position of having seen more new people coming into the political process since 2000 and believes that this generation can have a unique impact on Mississippi, particularly as far as political participation by African-Americans and women is concerned. “We are that group that’s really going to show what the new Mississippi is going to look like,” Fleming said.

Fleming noted that having worked recently with other rising young political operatives, such as Merle Flowers and Jackie Richmond, has given him a glimpse of what Mississippi’s future political landscape might be — and how much Mississippi politics has already changed. “Being able to see the three of us on the stage at the same time is a sign of how far Mississippi has come,” Fleming observed.

The Governor’s Lawyer

Working as chairman of Haley Barbour’s Hinds County campaign, Joe Nosef never imagined that after Barbour’s win, he would be offered a chance to make an impact on Mississippi politics as Gov. Barbour’s chief counsel.

With law degrees from Ole Miss and a master’s in tax law from the University of Florida, Nosef finds himself handling a wide range of issues that pass the governor’s desk.

“It involves handling everything from reviewing all the legislation he signs to the process of appointing judges,” he said. The range of issues that Mississippi’s state government has a hand in was wider than he had imagined before coming into the job.

Nosef came from a political family. His father, Joe Nosef Jr., was elected mayor of Clarksdale approximately 30 years ago. Even though his father died when he was six, Nosef always wanted to follow his father’s example of public service. His political work had been mostly behind the scenes in the past — serving on the Hinds County Republican Executive Committee, working on Chip Pickering’s 2002 campaign as the Hinds County chairman, and doing legal work for the Mississippi Republican Party. All while maintaining a corporate law practice in Jackson, first with Watkins and Eager, then with his own firm.

Nosef has his own explanation for the recent rise in politicos in their 20s and 30s in Mississippi, particularly during the last election cycle.

“I think one thing that was unique is that there’s been some longtime incumbents that stepped down — think of Marshall Bennett retiring. That opened up a lot of opportunities for new people,” Nosef said.

The incoming generation seems more interested in long-term solutions to the state’s problems rather than trying to find immediate fixes to some of the issues the state faces, Nosef believes. “We’re more concerned with prospects twenty years down the road for our four-and five-year-olds,” he added.

Looking at the future

Marty Wiseman, executive director for the Stennis Institute at Mississippi State University, said that the rise of a true two-party system in the state is one of the factors leading to a rise of younger candidates and policy makers in positions of power.

Wiseman notes that a survey recently done by the Stennis Institute shows something interesting about the newest crop of Mississippi voters and their attitudes toward government.

“They’re the children and grandchildren of New Deal Democrats, and they feel that because of one or two issues, they can’t identify themselves with the Democratic Party, but they expect the same level of government services their parents received,” Wiseman noted. “You cannot just use the party labels — Republican and Democrat — and define them like you would nationally because they just don’t mean the same thing.”

And the new political paradigms, particularly with regards to technology, will change campaigning and political operations radically in the years to come.

“Anytime you introduce new technology, you bring in a different kind of politician,” Wiseman said.

The new campaigning style will place a lot more emphasis on mass communication, particularly the Internet, than on traditional media — giving candidates comfortable with the Web, databases and e-mail a decided advantage.

But the changes that the newer generation in Mississippi politics may not be as smooth as some observers would like, Wiseman said, noting a rise in divisiveness in relations between the different branches of Mississippi state government.

“The one thing I would say is I hope for a balance between the two parties,” he said. “Right now, you’re seeing a whole lot of young people, particularly young white people, who feel obligated to be Republicans.”

Wiseman suggested that the Democrats need to find more ways to get young people involved in political campaigns if they don’t want to be eclipsed in the coming wave of newcomers to Mississippi politics. “One of the things that the two-party system is going to aid is give opportunity to younger candidates. If they’re told to wait their turn (by Democratic Party leaders), they can always just go over to the Republicans rather than staying with the Democratic Party — and then the Democrats will be in trouble.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer at Julie Whitehead at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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