JACKSON — U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee of Mississippi, a fiscal and social conservative elected to Congress in a Republican wave of 2010, died. He was 56.
Elizabeth Parks, the spokeswoman in Nunnelee’s congressional office, said he died at his home in Tupelo, Mississippi.
Parks released a statement from Nunnelee’s family: “Congressman Alan Nunnelee has gone home to be with Jesus. He was well loved and will be greatly missed.”
Nunnelee had experienced a series of health problems in recent months. In June 2014, he had a stroke while surgeons were removing a cancerous tumor from his brain. In addition to chemotherapy and radiation, he underwent physical therapy and speech therapy to try to recover from the stroke.
In an email to supporters in August 2014, Nunnelee said he had drawn strength from a Bible verse about giving thanks to God in all circumstances.
“I am glad the Scripture in Thessalonians does not say to give thanks for all circumstances because I would have a difficult time being thankful for a tumor or a stroke, much less both,” he wrote. “I have learned the way to approach the difficulty of stroke rehabilitation is to give thanks in all circumstances.”
In late December, Nunnelee was hospitalized in Tupelo for treatment of a hematoma, a bleeding problem in his left leg. He was too ill to go to Washington in early January to be sworn in for his third two-year term, so House leaders let him take his oath from a federal judge in Mississippi. Nunnelee took the oath in the hospital, joined by a small group that included his wife, Tori. Nunnelee was released from the hospital Jan. 26 and was sent him under hospice care.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant said he and his wife, Deborah, are praying for the Nunnelee family.
“Alan Nunnelee has been like a brother to me and was one of my dearest friends and companions. I will miss him greatly,” Bryant said Friday. “He was the best man I’ve ever known.”
Nunnelee is the first congressman from Mississippi to die in office since 1989, when Republican Rep. Larkin Smith was killed in a plane crash. The governor will have to set a special election within 60 days to fill the vacancy created by Nunnelee’s death.
In 2010, Nunnelee unseated Democrat Travis Childers, who had held north Mississippi’s 1st District seat since mid-2008. Like many Republican candidates that year, Nunnelee portrayed the Democratic incumbent as beholden to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. The Republicans won the House majority in that election, elevating John Boehner of Ohio to the speakership.
Nunnelee was a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
Although he was able to make few campaign appearances in 2014, Nunnelee easily defeated a Democratic challenger who ran a low-budget campaign and had never held public office. The Democrat, Ron Dickey, also had faced sharp criticism from veterans who said Dickey had misrepresented his own military experience by falsely claiming to have been a “Green Beret Veteran of Desert Storm.”
Before being elected to Congress, Nunnelee spent more than 15 years in the Mississippi Senate, where he eventually chaired the Appropriations Committee. In that role, Nunnelee worked to make the state budget writing process more transparent and easier for the general public to understand, said Democratic Sen. Hob Bryan of Amory. While Bryan said he and Nunnelee sometimes disagreed on issues, he said Nunnelee was honest and hard-working.
“He was just the sort of good, solid legislator you need in office,” Bryan said.
When Nunnelee was in the state Senate, he pushed for tougher anti-abortion laws, including one that requires doctors to tell women in mandatory pre-abortion counseling that terminating a pregnancy increases the risk of breast cancer — an assertion that abortion-rights supporters say is inaccurate.
During his final state legislative session in 2010, when he was running for Congress, Nunnelee persuaded his colleagues to pass legislation specifying that no tax dollars would be spent on abortion if Mississippi ever creates a state-sponsored health exchange under the federal health overhaul law that President Barack Obama signed in 2010. Mississippi is among the states that have not created their own exchanges.
“I think it’s very important that Mississippi go on record as saying we don’t want any taxpayer dollars spent to abort children in this state,” Nunnelee said in an interview after the bill passed.
Nunnelee had overcome health challenges in the past. He was nearly blind in college because of keratoconus, a degenerative eye disease. He received a left cornea transplant in April 1980 and a right one in January 1982.
Nunnelee is survived by his wife, Tori, and their three grown children.