Ronnie Musgrove (photo left) took the podium last week at the Stennis Institute-Capitol Press Corps Luncheon, scanned the audience at Jackson’s University Club and offered thanks.
“I’m so happy nobody bused in hecklers,” the former governor said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
Musgrove was referring to the speech he had given at the Neshoba County Fair, in which dozens of Roger Wicker supporters had peppered him with boos and jeers. Democrat Musgrove and his Republican opponent Wicker are locked in a campaign to replace former Sen. Trent Lott, who retired last year. Lately, the rhetoric on both sides has been heated and pointed.
Musgrove spent the majority of his 30-minute address in Jackson trying to refute some of the assertions Wicker made at the Fair, specifically the charge Wicker made that Musgrove left Mississippi in a massive budget deficit upon exiting the governor’s mansion.
“Here are the facts: I balanced the budget and reduced spending by $200 million,” Musgrove said. “And I did it without raising anybody’s taxes.”
Wicker had also told fairgoers that Musgrove’s administration’s policies had led to the state losing 52,000 jobs in his four years as governor.
“That’s also false,” Musgrove said. “The truth is that the number of people working on my first day in office was about the same as the number of people working on my last day in office. And unemployment was more than a full point lower on the day I left office than it is now. My administration’s efforts lead to the creation of more than 52,000 jobs and more than $14 billion in economic investments, including the Nissan plant, which is still the largest economic development project in state history.”
Last week’s luncheon was the first opportunity Musgrove had to publicly respond to Wicker since the Fair ended. In keeping with the overall theme of his campaign message, Musgrove decried the culture in Washington that he says ignores voters and caters to special interest groups.
“Our government is not taking care of business,” Musgrove said, “because it has forgotten what its business is, and that is the people’s business. For far too long, Washington has been protecting the values of the special interests.”
Musgrove even repeated a line he used at Neshoba, one former President Ronald Reagan made famous when he asked “Are you better off now than you were then?”
But eventually he returned his focus to fiscal and job figures.
“Roger Wicker and his allies have played a shell game with the budget numbers,” Musgrove said. “I’ve tried to focus on the issues. At Neshoba, Roger Wicker and his allies made it clear that they’re willing to say anything to hold onto that seat.”
Before the Fair, Musgrove had challenged Wicker to a debate at the Founders Square pavilion. Wicker balked, saying he could not juggle his Senate voting schedule and the Fair’s. The two spoke 10 minutes apart at the Fair.
“I would have loved to debate Roger Wicker, but as we all know he has refused to debate,” Musgrove said in Jackson.
Wicker broadened his scope to touch on the national economy. His term as governor from 1999-2003 coincided largely with President Bush’s first term.
“Some governors serve in a booming economy,” Musgrove said. “I got George Bush.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .