It’s election year, and in Mississippi that means the hot air at the Neshoba County Fair gets hotter as political speakers take the stage at Founders Square. This year is no exception as a long list of candidates are lined up to address Fair goers and ask for their votes. The Fair midway opens on July 20 with political speeches scheduled to begin July 24 and run through the 26th.
The lineup includes candidates for county positions — constable, supervisor, justice court judge — along with district and state office seekers. Speakers running for statewide office include attorney general candidates Jim Hood and Al Hopkins; lieutenant governor candidates Jamie Franks, Phil Bryant and Charlie Ross; and gubernatorial candidates Haley Barbour, John Arthur Eaves Jr., Fredrick Jones, Louis Fondren and Gary Anderson. Even non-candidate and incumbent Secretary of State Eric Clark is slated to speak.
To help keep the political air from getting too hot, musical acts such as the Neshoba Central High School Band and the Hinds Community College Hi-Steppers will also entertain.
But, entertainment, some political observers say, is the name of the game when it comes to political speaking at the Neshoba County Fair.
The Clarion-Ledger’s perspective editor, Sid Salter, said that as a boy he enjoyed listening to Ross Barnett, not because he agreed with much of what Barnett had to say, but because Barnett understood that speaking at Neshoba wasn’t about the speech, it was about the performance.
“Clearly, modern political campaigns rely on TV ads, Web sites, telephone boiler rooms and other mass media to win elections. That said, Mississippians view politics as a form of entertainment, and there’s nothing more entertaining than a live performance,” Salter said. “The Neshoba County Fair, the Fourth of July Festival at the Jacinto Courthouse in Alcorn County and a few other stump speaking venues around the state provide opportunities for those live performances and for that reason remain important.
“I’m not sure that candidates can really help themselves that much with a good performance at Neshoba, but they can kill their campaigns with a bad performance.”
Marty Wiseman, Ph.D., director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, said Ross Barnett, Jim Buck Ross and other politicos from the old school provided some of his best memories of the Fair.
“They would not only speak but sing and play guitar; some old-timey things you wouldn’t get anywhere else. They would save it for the Fair,” he said.
Another memorable Fair political event cited by Wiseman and Salter is the fiery debate between 1995 gubernatorial candidates Dick Molpus and the late Kirk Fordice.
“That’s one of the classic ones,” Wiseman said. “Fordice took on Molpus on his own home turf and they went after it pretty good.”
Salter said, “That was sort of a full-contact political experience all the way around. But, the best speech I ever heard at Neshoba, hands down, was former State Sen. Terry Jordan’s infamous ‘Nurse Dixie’ speech when he put the wood to former Lt. Gov. Eddie Briggs. That wasn’t a speech — it was assault and battery with a deadly weapon.”
The Fair is one of few political rallies left in the state. Attempts to have them are usually not well attended. ”They try to have them and maybe 100 people are there but it’s all the candidates from the county that attend,” Wiseman said. “They’re afraid to miss it but most people don’t go anymore.”
Salter feels the loss of personal contact between public officials and the electorate is in great measure the explanation for the general cynicism that people have about government and politics. “There’s simply less accountability for the politicians and less opportunity to have input for the voters,” he said.
Personal contact makes voters think their vote counts, Wiseman said. He recalled that his dad ran two successful campaigns on $500 that mostly paid for cards, matchbooks and emery boards.
“In the old days, people wanted to be asked for their vote. You had to hand them that card and tell them you would appreciate their vote,” he said. “The ability to lay hands on every vote is almost impossible now and candidates have to use every medium — e-mails, TV, etc.”
He points out that winning elections is all about name recognition. “For anything beyond pressing the flesh, there’s a price tag,” he said. “Candidates get 15 seconds instead of 15 minutes with voters, and it’s important to utilize that sound bite.”
Without a rip-roaring governor’s race, this year’s crop of speakers at the Fair may not be of much interest, Wiseman fears, noting that the candidates for lieutenant governor are so far being polite.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at firstname.lastname@example.org.