Thirteen years after his death, Jamie Whitten still casts a long political shadow in Northeast Mississippi.
The former congressman served for 50 years in the House of Representatives, 13 of which were spent as chair of the Appropriations Committee. Reminders of the power Whitten wielded from that post stretch from Mississippi, where a bridge over the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway in the northern part of the state bears his name, to Washington, where the headquarters of the United States Department of Agriculture is officially called the Jamie L. Whitten Federal Building.
The longest-serving U.S. Representative ever, Whitten’s policies defined a region.
So, it should come as no surprise that Whitten is playing an indirect role in the election whose winner will succeed the man who succeeded him.
Roger Wicker, R-Tupelo, grabbed the First District’s seat upon Whitten’s retirement and held it until Gov. Haley Barbour appointed him to fill the unexpired term of retiring Sen. Trent Lott.
Now that Wicker has to be replaced, two men have emerged as contenders after a series of primaries and runoffs.
On the Democratic ticket is Travis Childers, the long time chancery clerk for Prentiss County. Before taking office, Childers worked full-time as a real estate agent and still owns the agency bearing his name in Booneville.
Representing the GOP is Southaven Mayor Greg Davis, who served in the Mississippi House of Representatives before winning the mayor’s office in 1997.
Both men are conservative, and have campaigned on platforms of job growth and economic prosperity.
Because of the District’s demographics, a candidate politically left-of-center would have no shot at being elected. That principle would normally exclude a Democrat, in this case Childers, but there remains a bloc of conservative voters who grew up during the Whitten years voting Democrat in every election from local to federal levels. That group has turned out in droves in the primaries, and nearly gave Childers the seat outright in the April 22 primary. Childers came just 400 votes short of earning a majority and becoming the District’s first Democratic congressman since Whitten.
Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi University, has said for years that a conservative Democrat could win the seat if Wicker ever left it open.
“That area of the state represents the last bastion of Jamie Whitten-New Deal Democrats,” Wiseman said in an interview last month. “(Childers) is indeed formidable.”
So, too, is Davis. Davis’s home base in DeSoto County has experienced population growth the past decade or so that exceeds that of all but a few counties in the entire nation. The numbers of people and businesses fleeing Memphis have turned DeSoto County into an area that, based on its population, can make or break a candidate. Not surprisingly, Davis has won DeSoto County handily in each primary.
DeSoto’s emergence has given it a seat beside Tupelo as the one of the District’s most populated areas.
“There’s definitely a rivalry between those two,” Wiseman said. “Tupelo was king in that District for years, and wants to remain that way.”
For three straight primaries that whittled the field from almost 10 candidates down to two, Tupelo has almost made Childers king. Davis has easily won in DeSoto County. Childers has won almost everywhere else.
That kind of political tension, and the near guarantee an incumbent congressman has of getting re-elected, has turned the contest between Davis and Childers ahead of the May 13 primary — which will give Wicker’s old seat to one on an interim basis until November’s general election — quite nasty.
A television advertisement paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee attacks Childers for a list of violations committed by a nursing home he was affiliated with.
“Travis Childers doesn’t care for seniors,” the ad’s narrator says. “He profits from them.”
An ad approved by Davis himself attempts to connect Childers with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and Obama’s former pastor, who is currently taking heat for some of his sermons that blamed America for 9-11.
Childers has countered with an ad that touts his pro-life and pro-gun philosophies and says he will work with both parties to create jobs in North Mississippi.
In one of the lighter offerings, Betty Childers, Travis’ mother, says her son will “shake up Congress.”
Wiseman says this election will pit old-school conservative Democrats from the rural areas of the District against neo-conservatives who have settled in and around the state’s border with Memphis.
“And it will be very close,” Wiseman said.
Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .