PICAYUNE — Former state Sen. Ezell Lee of Picayune died today after battling cancer, according to a Senate staff member who had spoken with his family.
Lee was 74. He served in the Mississippi House from 1988 to 1992, then in the state Senate from 1992 until January 2012.
Lee served most of his career as a Democrat, and switched to the Republican Party in February 2011. At a news conference announcing his move, Lee said the change of labels would not change his beliefs.
“I have always tried to vote that conservative vote,” Lee said.
He was defeated in a Republican primary in August 2011 as he sought re-election in District 47, in parts of Pearl River, Stone, Harrison and Jackson counties.
Barbara Wellborn, a legislative assistant for the Senate, said she spoke with one of Lee’s daughters who said Lee died this morning. Funeral arrangements were pending.
Lee was a teacher and coach before serving in the Legislature. As a Democrat, he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Picayune in 2009.
At a rally in January 2007, Lee called for support of public schools and full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a complex formula designed to ensure that schools receive enough money to meet midlevel academic standards. MAEP was put into law in 1997 but has rarely been fully funded.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to fund MAEP this year. And I hate to say this and it is embarrassing to say it, but it’s simply because it is an election year,” Sen. Ezell Lee, D-Picayune, said at the rally.
Former Sen. Doug Davis, a Republican from Hernando, said today on Twitter: “I’m sorry to learn of the passing of former Sen. Ezell Lee. He was known for his good humor, fiery speeches and his love for our State.”
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who presided over the Senate as lieutenant governor from 2008 until this past January, issued a statement saying he’s praying for Lee’s family.
“He served the people of south Mississippi with commitment and determination, both as a representative and as a member of the Mississippi Senate,” Bryant said.
First-term Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who was state treasurer from 2004 until this January, said in a statement: “Sen. Ezell Lee was a dedicated public servant, who understood the value of a strong public education system and was committed to improving Mississippi schools.”
In 2005, Lee was one of eight Democratic state senators who helped host a fundraiser for Republican Sen. Charlie Ross as Ross prepared to run for lieutenant governor — a contest he eventually lost to Bryant. Lee said at the time that a Republican colleague had approached him about an event to honor Ross for leadership in putting new restrictions on civil lawsuits. Lee said he was not bothered by crossing lines.
“I represent people,” Lee said before the 2005 event. “The party system to me is kind of like a cult. I just vote the way I think my people want me to vote. That’s how I vote, regardless of party affiliation.”