Everyone who keeps up with politics in Mississippi knew that it was on his mind. But everyone also knows that Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives Billy McCoy can be one stubborn soul when he wants to be. Yet last week Speaker McCoy made what had to be a gut-wrenching decision for him. He decided to lay down the Speaker’s gavel and decline to seek re-election to the post of District 3 of his beloved Mississippi House of Representatives.
When the 2012 session of the Mississippi Legislature is sworn in Speaker Billy McCoy’s 32-year career as a member of that body will come to an end. When combined with his father Elmer McCoy’s four-term period in the House, two generations of McCoys will have logged just short of 50 years in the Mississippi Legislature. Rep. Billy McCoy followed in his father’s footsteps in being an advocate for public education, better roads and any number of programs that would improve the lives of hard-working men and women in Alcorn and Prentiss counties and, indeed, all over the State of Mississippi. A few moments in Billy McCoy’s presence makes it abundantly clear that he believes strongly that he was sent to Jackson to be vigilant on behalf of those who likely would never darken to door of the Mississippi Capitol. He is one of the last of a dying breed of populist politicians who was determined to deliver on behalf of the men and women who get out of bed before the sun rises, pack a lunch and go to work and get back home after the sun sets with the day’s grit and dirt under their finger nails. Indeed, a day or two touring his Northeast Mississippi district is like a semester-long course in representative democracy.
Speaker McCoy knows who lives in every house on every road in his district, who was for him and who was against him and the stories of their lives – both good and bad. He can go to any number of cemeteries adjacent to pristinely manicured brick and clapboard rural churches and point to the graves of citizens from rural Prentiss and Alcorn counties who had to leave those verdant hills and hollows to serve in the military and who subsequently lost their lives in the process. Those churches carrying names like Forked Oak, Little Brown and numerous others are truly hallowed ground.
In fact, it was accessibility to church that played a part in one of the more interesting examples of Billy McCoy’s populist political acumen. In an out-of-the-way part of his district Speaker McCoy suggested to the driver to stop on a bridge on a rural road over a railroad bed. He pointed to the houses on one side and to the church on the other. The railroad had been moved there during the construction of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway that slices through McCoy’s district. No provision had been made for the bridge, thus causing the residents of the houses to have a 30 to 45 minute commute to a church that they lived in sight of. Of course there were many others who were inconvenienced by this unplanned break in the roadway. Then Rep. McCoy huddled with United States Representative Jamie Whitten, who was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Needless to say, funds for the badly needed bridge appeared in the federal budget and the 45-minute commute was reduced to three minutes.
Tours with Speaker McCoy inevitably wind their way past schools. Public education, particularly in small towns and rural areas, is a source of great pride and of continuing concern to Billy McCoy. It is clear that McCoy believes that education is the one thing that gives rural Mississippians, who might not have expected to have much, a chance at having more than they ever dreamed.
In addition to Speaker McCoy’s role as chief policymaker, there is his function as point man in party politics in this new age of two-party political hardball. It comes as no secret that the Democratic Party of Mississippi as had its struggles of late. The juggernaut like rise of the Haley Barbour-led Republican Party has brought the Republicans into parity and beyond with the Democrats. The Mississippi Senate, regardless of the numbers, has come firmly into Gov. Barbour’s Republican orbit. That the Republican march to legislative domination has been thwarted to this point can largely be attributed to the resolve of Democratic House Speaker Billy McCoy. Now, in the midst of a redistricting battle that will probably extend past his departure the last bastion of Democratic Party power at the state level will be clearly threatened.
The resolve of this representative of the people – the workingman’s House Speaker — will be sorely missed by many. He played hard with every bone in his body until the final horn sounded on his career. As the football coaches say, Speaker Billy McCoy “left it all on the field.” Speaker McCoy can look back on a career filled with effort and accomplishment and, whether they know it or not, it will be the hardworking men and women of Mississippi who will miss him the most.