As one surveys the political landscape following the 2008 elections, one race in particular proves to be quite instructive on the issue of the connectivity of seemingly unrelated events that are played out in the political game.
To set the stage, the question has often been asked since Nov. 4 as to what the future of the Mississippi Democratic Party might be. While this is cause for much speculation, any answer is most likely tinged with considerable uncertainty. It did not necessarily have to be that way. It is clear that there are many in the Mississippi who are willing, under the right circumstances, to cast a Democratic ballot. However, most observers will agree that the Democrats still lack that one charismatic, unifying leader who can be equally well received as the speaker at the local Rotary Club at noon and at the county NAACP meeting that night.
In that regard, the saga of one man in the recent elections tells us a lot about the connectedness and ultimate impacts of political moves made years before and their ability to change the course of politics. In this case, the crafty actions were taken by master political tactician Gov. Haley Barbour. On numerous occasions, I have heard Gov. Barbour, who is also the former highly successful chairman of the National Republican Party, make the statement that in politics it is always important to take the long view. The election of 2008 reminds me that Gov. Barbour is thoroughly capable of practicing what he preaches.
In the Mississippi elections of 1999, a young Democrat from one of the most rural areas of the state was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives. Shortly after the 2000 legislative session convened, news of this rising star began spreading far and wide. This young Representative from Greene County quickly rose to chair the House Education Committee by virtue of his passion to do something about education, especially in the poorer, more isolated areas of Mississippi. Along with that position came the chairmanship of the Education Appropriation Sub-Committee. By 2003, more than a few people were predicting an early run for lieutenant governor, or even governor, for the rising young Democratic Party star. I was privileged to hear him speak at a Stennis Institute/Capitol Press luncheon, and I came away in awe.
It was at that luncheon that Rep. Randy “Bubba” Pierce, after speaking of his family, church and community, was asked when he would switch to the Republican Party. I will never forget his sincere response. He talked of his getting married when he was 18 and his bride was 16, and a daughter on the way. He said that that college was fairly unthinkable, but hard work was an absolute. He and his wife of now 25 years decided to do both. They worked hard and went to school — first to Jones Junior College, then to USM for a bachelor’s in accounting and then a master’s in business administration. Following that, Bubba Pierce went to law school at Ole Miss, where he was elected president of the law school student body. As he discussed the efforts to reach each different level, he talked of the programs that provided a safety net for him and his growing family when they had very little of financial substance to depend on. In each case, he stated that these programs were there because of the Democratic Party. I came away believing that if ever there was a fresh face to lead the Democratic Party in Mississippi out of the political wilderness, that surely this was it. Pierce was such a Democrat that he was allowed to break precedent at the 2004 Neshoba County Fair to speak for the ailing Democratic House Speaker Billy McCoy when up until then substitutes had not been allowed as Fair speakers. Perhaps it was then that Rep. Pierce was considered as gubernatorial timber in his own right.
It is at this point where things took a decided turn in a different direction. Gov. Haley Barbour recognized talent when he saw it. If he could reward that talent, while at the same time perhaps remove a formidable obstacle to his legislative agenda and maybe also create an opening to possibly switch a seat from the Democratic column to the Republican column, then he would take that opportunity. The governor thus appointed Rep. Bubba Pierce to fill an unexpired term of a chancery judge in a district that includes parts of Greene, George and Jackson counties.
Several things resulted from this. Bubba Pierce was able to continue serving the public, something that remains highly important to him. Gov. Barbour got a shot at converting a legislative seat to the Republican column. But perhaps most importantly of all, the single most notable rising star of the Democratic Party, the person who would perhaps play that galvanizing role for the many Democratic Party factions, was diverted to the judiciary, where on Nov. 4, 2008 Chancery Judge Randy “Bubba” Pierce became Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Pierce. Consequently, the Democrats still search for that charismatic candidate who will lead a restoration of Democratic Party power in statewide elections.
Politics is indeed an interesting journey undertaken most successfully by those who can take the long view.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Mary Wiseman at firstname.lastname@example.org .