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Lott’s departure setting the stage for a free-for-all

Stunned. That was the reaction of many Mississippi politicos concerning Sen. Trent Lott’s surprise resignation announcement November 26. What would prompt him to give up the powerful No. 2 Republican post in the Senate, especially on Monday following Thanksgiving?

A few business folks mused the move by Lott, who was re-elected to a fourth Senate term and elected by his colleagues as the Senate’s Republican whip last year, was planned well in advance, and the powers-that-be were simply waiting for Gov. Haley Barbour to win a second term, thus ensuring a Republican appointment to the coveted post.

“The news (of Lott’s resignation) surprised the heck out of me,” said Marty Wiseman, executive director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. “I wouldn’t have been as surprised if he had chosen not to run a year ago rather than being a year into it and saying ‘now it’s time to go home.’”

Other than stating he is exploring “other opportunities,” Lott gave no reason for his resignation, effective year-end. Amid speculation, he pointedly cited no health problems. “It’s time for us to do something else,” Lott explained.

“I guess I take him at his word that it was time to do something else, and he wanted to create an advantage to a successor seniority-wise so that when Sen. (Thad) Cochran decides to retire, we’d have someone moving up the power ladder,” said Wiseman. (On November 14, Cochran announced he will seek a fifth term.) “However, I wonder what else might be part of the suddenness of this decision. It’s akin to someone with a long stick poking the wasp’s nest.”

Lott’s resignation — the sixth Senate Republican to resign this year — comes on the heels of Rep. Chip Pickering’s August 17 announcement that he would not seek a seventh, two-year term in 2008. Republicans were in power during Pickering’s first decade in Congress. He candidly told reporters that being in the minority “is different,” with Democrat leaders requiring representatives to work more days on Capitol Hill.

Pickering, a former Lott aide who said the senator “has been a mentor to me,” has been on top of the speculative short list of candidates from which Barbour might choose as Lott’s interim successor. “I will always be grateful for my friendship and service with (Lott),” said Pickering, who called his late summer decision not to seek another term as “simply taking a leave of absence.”

The governor has 10 days after Lott’s resignation to appoint someone to take his place in Congress. Barbour, who called Lott’s decision to resign “a terrible loss for Mississippi and for the country,” ruled out appointing himself by saying, “I’m still on hurricane duty here in Mississippi.” Mississippians will elect a replacement November 4, 2008, to complete Lott’s term, which runs through 2012.

“That’s sure shaking up a situation that’s already shaken,” noted Wiseman. “I don’t know whether the governor’s thinking he’ll appoint a caretaker for the seat who will be a prominent Republican taking marching orders from Haley and the other members of the Mississippi Republican Party who make those kinds of decisions and who will agree not to run … or if he’ll try to create a leg up for someone who does intend to run by giving them an early chance to perform in the position. You can rest assured the wheels are turning in that regard.”

Other potential Republican successors to Lott’s seat include U.S. Rep. Roger Wicker from Tupelo, who has represented the first district since 1995. When approached about seeking the post, he said he would allow “some time to reflect and hear what people are saying is the right thing to do.”

Mississippi Democrats have challenged the timing of Barbour’s appointment and the special election, saying the law calls for voters to decide the replacement within 100 days of Lott’s resignation and not wait until November 4. Gubernatorial spokesperson Pete Smith said the law “speaks for itself.”

Secretary of State Eric Clark said the candidate who receives the majority of votes in the November 4 election will win the seat. If no one garners 51% of the vote that day, a runoff election between the two highest voter-getters will take place three weeks later.

Democrat hopefuls for Lott’s spot include former Attorney General Mike Moore, former Govs. Ronnie Musgrove and Ray Mabus and former Congressman Ronnie Shows.

Whatever he chooses to do, Lott pledged to “work hard for this state the last day I’m alive.”

“Our business climate is stronger today because of Sen. Lott’s work,” said Brian W. Sanderson, president of the Gulf Coast Business Council, “and that legacy will live on through more, higher paying jobs and a better quality of life for many Mississippians.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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