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Wicker pledges to open Coast office, continue recovery effort

In naming Rep. Roger Wicker to fill the unexpired U.S. Senate seat of Trent Lott, Gov. Haley Barbour said he wanted someone with a flat learning curve. Wicker has represented the state’s first congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1995, experience Barbour feels is important to assume Lott’s mantle and work on Capitol Hill.

“In my lifetime, no governor of Mississippi has appointed a United States senator, so you can imagine what a serious decision this one has been,” Barbour said. “To me, the first requirement was that the appointee share Sen. Lott’s conservative values and views and those of Sen. Cochran. Congressman Roger Wicker clearly meets that test.”

Barbour made the announcement at press conferences December 31, 2007, in Jackson and in Gulfport.

Terry Cassreino, spokesman for the Mississippi Democratic Party, said the party will field strong, competitive candidates in races to oppose Wicker for the seat and to fill Wicker’s unexpired congressional spot.

“These candidates will be folks who can and will win both offices,” he said. “We believe that Mississippi, like the rest of the nation, will want to elect candidates who will be a part of the congressional majority in Washington. It’s important that the state has a seat at the table and a voice in all issues.”

He said no candidates have announced but the party anticipates names to be revealed soon. “We will have the best possible candidates to take back these spots,” he added. “We also believe Mississippi state law is clear and that the governor must call for an election within 100 days of the official resignation.”

Barbour has set the special election for November 2008. That means Wicker has almost a full year to serve in the post before voters have the opportunity to vote for him or another candidate to fill the remainder of the term.

Wayne Dowdy, chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party, said the official state attorney general’s opinion affirms what the party has said since Lott announced his plans to resign: state law requires an election within 100 days if the senator resigns from office before the end of the year.

“Doing so will guarantee that Mississippians are represented in Washington as soon as possible by someone who is duly elected by the people,” he said. “Scheduling an election for November 2008 would deny the people immediate representation by someone of their choice.”

Wicker, who also served in the State Senate and on the staff of Sen. Lott, called his selection a distinct honor and an awesome responsibility to be named to serve in Lott’s place.

“From all accounts, Gov. Barbour has gone through a careful and deliberate process in arriving at this moment, during which he considered the names of a large number of outstanding and talented Mississippians,” he said. “I am all the more humbled by this knowledge.”

Wicker described himself as a mainstream conservative in the mold of Lott, Thad Cochran, Chip Pickering and Haley Barbour, adding that he believes the vast majority of Mississippians shares this philosophy.

Before the announcement of Wicker’s selection, Pickering was thought to be a leading contender to fill Lott’s vacancy. When he resigned, Lott said he envisioned someone younger, under 40, moving into his position. Wicker is 56. Barbour would not say whether or not Pickering was his first choice, stating only that Pickering took himself out of the running.

The governor gave no reason for making the announcement in Gulfport that followed the announcement made in Jackson. A large group of elected officials and well wishers attended the Gulfport event and were pleased to hear Wicker say he will work toward the area’s hurricane recovery. He pledged to continue working with others in the Mississippi delegation, including Rep. Gene Taylor, a Democrat from Bay St. Louis, who champions a national all-perils insurance.

That was good news to Long Beach Mayor Billie Skellie. “We can stand no more delays,” he said. “Our recovery is going very slow, and we need someone who’s been involved. I feel like this is a good appointment.”

Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway agreed. “We must keep the momentum going,” he said. “I like what the governor said about appointing someone with the flattest learning curve he could find.”

Hancock Bank CEO George Schoelgel said the single most important piece of legislation is the proposed insurance bill, noting that Wicker voted for it in the U.S. House of Representatives and is now in a position to push it in the Senate where it failed last year.

Wicker said he plans to open an office on the Coast where he acknowledged that his name is not a household word.

“My first priority is to listen to people all across the state,” he said. “My legislative priorities are national security; economic development and job creation, building on the successes of Gov. Barbour; paying attention to small business and agriculture; healthcare; and the complete rebuilding of the Coast.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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