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Economy, education cornerstones of Musgrove’s campaign

After four years of being on the outside looking in, Ronnie Musgrove jumped front and center into Mississippi politics when he announced in January that he was running against his friend and former roommate Roger Wicker for the right to fill retired Sen. Trent Lott’s old seat.

Musgrove once was a state political celebrity, representing Panola County in the state Senate before winning the lieutenant governor’s post in 1995. He served one term in that office before becoming Mississippi’s 62nd governor in an election that, due to neither Musgrove nor opponent Mike Parker receiving a majority vote, was eventually decided by the state House of Representatives.

As governor, Musgrove presided over what is still considered the largest economic development project in Mississippi history, the Nissan plant in Canton. Nissan’s arrival gave legitimacy to the notion that the Southeastern United States could become an automotive manufacturing leader. The Canton plant opened in May 2003.

Aside from Nissan, Musgrove’s administration is best remembered for the first full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), a formula that determines the amount of state funding each of the state’s school districts will receive in a budget year. Passed in 1997 after intense debate, MAEP was not fully funded until the 2003 legislative session, which ended just months before current Gov. Haley Barbour defeated Musgrove.

Fully funding MAEP and giving Mississippi teachers a pay raise became the centerpiece of Musgrove’s legacy. For that, Musgrove has received an endorsement from the National Association of Educators (NAE).

“He has consistently been a champion for children in public education,” said Kevin Gilbert, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, an arm of the national organization.

Gilbert pointed to the Musgrove administration’s fully funding MAEP —“although it was an election year,” Gilbert concedes — legislation that provided money for school building improvements and the program that put computers in every classroom in the state as reasons the Association is supporting Musgrove.

“Hands-down he is the best candidate to help us accomplish our goals,” Gilbert said.

A major focus of the MAE is the No Child Left Behind program. It is set to expire next year, meaning the next Congress that convenes in January will decide what to do with it.

“That’s very important,” Gilbert said. “So we need someone with an educational background (representing Mississippi in the U.S. Senate).”

The MAE endorsed Musgrove in 1995 when he was running for lieutenant governor and again in his two bids for governor. Gilbert made it a point to praise Musgrove for his action as governor to call a special session that eventually led to the removal of a clause that tied five years’ worth of teacher pay raises to a stipulation that required 5% of annual revenue growth in the state budget.

“He led the way on that,” Gilbert said. “We’re looking for a champion for public education. He believes in our children, he believes in public education and that’s why we believe he’s the best candidate.”

The Musgrove campaign picked up another endorsement last week from another group with a large member population, the Hinds County law enforcement community.

“We really appreciate him taking the time to listen to our concerns,” said Hinds County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Capt. Steve Pickett. Pickett, flanked by representatives from the state Capitol Police Department and the Jackson Police Department, said the decision to support Musgrove was based on his work to strengthen state DUI laws, his work for victims’ rights and the creation of the state’s AMBER Alert system.

For his part, Musgrove has built his campaign message around the faulty economy and those, including Wicker, he faults for letting it get in that condition.

“Washington is broken,” Musgrove said. “The economy is going in the wrong direction. The country is going in the wrong direction.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

About Clay Chandler

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