As Mississippi was preparing to host the National Governor’s Association’s annual conference last week for the first time since 1935, some 40 governors were expected to be in attendance.
As this was written, we have perhaps missed our chance to have Sarah Palin in town in her role as governor.
Gov. Palin announced her forthcoming departure from that office, and in the process offered a less than flattering description of the plight of “lame duck” governors who are, according to Palin, simply playing out the string at the taxpayer’s expense. Palin would have surely tempered her characterization of those who won’t have another shot at the endorsement by the electorate had she been in Mississippi observing Gov. Haley Barbour in his final term. Gov. Barbour, agree with him or not, has so far defied the imposition of the lame duck label on his administration. It has been only a few weeks since the governor grabbed the budget process by the throat, wrestled it to the ground and only let it up when it had cried “uncle.”
Pundits and the public alike have for decades taken for granted the conventional wisdom that the Office of Governor, a creature of the old stinker of an 1890 Mississippi Constitution, was created to be weak, and that’s just the way things were. True enough there have been governors who acted with bold strokes — sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. William Winter successfully took his case for education reform to the public and got the Legislature to take historic action. Theodore Bilbo used his populist appeal to, among many other things, cost the state’s universities their accreditation after firing faculty members and otherwise flexing muscle he didn’t have.
One of the major impediments in the 1890 Constitution is the requirement that all statewide officials must be elected by the people rather than appointed by the governor as is the case, for example, with the United States cabinet. In recent years, Gov. Kirk Fordice railed against the fact that he had to work with seven out of seven Democrats who shared the executive branch with him.
Why then has Haley Barbour seemingly operated from a position of strength rather than traditional weakness? From the day he arrived as a candidate, Barbour brought with him several attributes that have served him well. No one underestimates his tremendous political fundraising capability. While this has been significant in the success of his own campaigns, it has garnered the attention of those aspiring to higher office who have less access to campaign funds. They believe that there is no need to anger the goose that just may lay a golden egg for their own use. Beyond the money variable, Gov. Barbour brought the very latest in technology and techniques for identifying and activating a base of support. The same databases filled with names for campaign purposes have been continuously maintained and put to good use in the important legislative battles to follow.
Legislators learned early on in the first Barbour administration that the governor would have as much contact with their constituents as they themselves did. This was proven beyond doubt during the Barbour-inspired push for tort reform when Gov. Barbour communicated regularly with the grassroots who in turn contacted their respective legislators. House Judiciary Committee chairman Ed Blackmon acknowledged the difficulty of opposing what he labeled “the Barbour juggernaut” in conceding the fight on tort reform.
Gov. Barbour has made good use of his understanding of the nuances of the political philosophies of Mississippians. This knowledge has helped him to understand that conservative Democrats could be cajoled to vote like Republicans on many occasions, and thus he has been able to exploit the narrow Democratic majority in the Mississippi Senate.
To enhance this ability, Gov. Barbour has made unprecedented use of the veto and the special session. On numerous occasions, Gov. Barbour has helped wrestle legislation to a stand still only to call the Legislature back to Jackson to a special session where the governor specifies the agenda. Rather than using the veto only to be overridden consistently by the Legislature, as was the case with Gov. Fordice, Gov. Barbour has learned to make the vetoes stick.
Events of recent weeks offer proof enough of these Barbour political skills. When the 2009 Legislature reached a stalemate in the difficult task of passing a budget in these unusual economic times, the ball was passed to Gov. Barbour’s court. He was able to call a special session and exclude the battle over Medicaid and Medicare funding until the legislation approximated his demands. While this was impressive enough, there was another event that may have been more so. Senate Bill 3197 was designed to save cut-and-sew jobs for the furniture industry by offering tax credits to the furniture companies who hired employees with these skills. This bill passed without a dissenting vote in both houses of the Mississippi Legislature. Gov. Barbour vetoed this bill for reasons that he thoroughly believed in. Despite its unanimous approval, Senate Bill 3197 was not even brought up by the Legislature for consideration of an override. Gov. Palin may need to exempt Governor Barbour from her lame duck category.
Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.