Politics: . . . And the Dog You Came in With
The Economist, vol. 350, February 13, 1999
© 1999 The Economist Newspaper Group, Inc.
JACKSON - It is well known in Mississippi that the governor, Kirk
Fordice, has a penchant for offensive bombast. This is the man
who routinely calls the state attorney-general "Flashbulb"
because of his media popularity, and who refers to the killing
of inmates on death row as "reducing the inventory".
As for the media, that bastion of lying leftists has inspired
numerous tirades from the governor over the past eight years.
was hardly out of character when Mr Fordice used his final state-of-the-state
address last month to berate legislators as a bunch of liberal
spendthrifts bent on serving special interests. It was the reaction
that was surprising. The legislators, most of whom have at least
feigned respect in the face of these outbursts in the past, were
obviously fed up with the game. The speech ended with silence
- not even a smattering of applause from Republicans or Democrats.
Three weeks later, almost every proposal in the governor's agenda
second term of Mississippi's only Republican governor this century
comes to a close, Mr Fordice's story offers a lesson in how not
to get things done in southern politics. The conservative agenda
on which he was elected remains virtually nonexistent in law,
defeated over and over again by lawmakers he antagonised. Democrats
are sick and tired of being publicly abused by the state's leader.
Republicans, who have in the past tried to gather support for
his ideas, are frustrated. As a whole, they routinely override
Fordice vetoes. "You can't bad-mouth people nine months of
the year and then expect to get what you want in the other three,"
says Ken Stribling, a Republican from Jackson.
Republican legislators say that their relationship with the governor
is no better than his relationship with Democrats. Only rarely
since 1991 have party leaders met Mr Fordice to discuss their
agenda, so Fordice vetoes in some cases are just as surprising
to them. "He simply does not see us as a resource . . . or
as simply other elected officials who deserve courtesy,"
says Jim Simpson, a Republican from Gulfport. Even when Mr Fordice
invited Republican legislators to an opening-session reception
this year, he could not resist furiously reciting the names of
every legislator who had voted to override his vetoes that day.
expected to end this way. Mississippi Republicans could hardly
believe their luck when Mr Fordice, an unknown businessman, won
the governor's race in 1991. Mississippi was a Democratic stronghold
that had not elected a Republican governor since Reconstruction.
If the governor could build bridges with non-Republicans, they
reckoned, the party's rebirth would be certain. Shortly after
the election, Republican legislators sent him memos suggesting
visits to black churches and other simple means of connecting
with the masses.
the governor seemed not to have the art of polite conversation.
Hopes of building bridges to the masses were dampened early on
when he jokingly threatened to call out the National Guard in
a dispute over state funding for black colleges. (Mississippi,
whose population is 23% black, still has a number of colleges
specifically catering to black students.) Black leaders took offence
on other issues, too, including Mr Fordice's refusal to name a
black to the college board, his support of Confederate symbols
and his defence of a white supremacist organisation, the Council
of Conservative Citizens, as containing "some very good people
with some very good ideas."
conservative platform of tax rebates, school choice and opposition
to abortion has played well with most Mississippi voters. Having
twice voted him into office, they seem to like his blunt, no-nonsense
way of describing Christian-based ideals. The general population
appears quite unconcerned about whom he offends. But his caustic
style has left ill-will across the political scene, and has given
him little chance of turning these conservative ideas into legislation.
the issue of voter identification, for example. For several years,
Mr Fordice has pushed for a provision to require voters to show
identification when voting. The same bill would also allow voters
to register when they get their driving licences. As part of the
push, he accused legislators of having benefited from voter fraud.
His refusal to apologise for the remark has not been forgotten,
and neither have voter-identification requirements passed. Outside
the legislature, he picked an unnecessary fight by leading the
opposition to a state-led lawsuit against tobacco companies. Even
after Mississippi has accepted a nearly $4 billion settlement-more
than twice the amount of the state budget in any given year-Mr
Fordice still harangues the state attorney-general for the way
the money is being spent.
strength as governor has been his ability to bring business into
the state. As an engineer and former chief executive of a construction
company, he is not shy about calling up fellow CEOs and discussing
Mississippi's business-friendly tax structure. Critics contend
that he takes too much credit for the state's strong economy;
they cite the legalisation of gambling in 1994, which Mr Fordice
opposed, along with the national boom, for the economic revival
in this notoriously poor state. But even opponents concede that
he has been a grand recruiter of business.
success has not made Mr Fordice more popular in the legislature.
Last month, a couple of weeks after his state-of-the-state speech,
a state senator introduced a referendum to ban pets in the capitol.
It was an obvious slap at Mr Fordice, the only person who routinely
comes to work with a dog. Lance, a lovable black Labrador, sits
by the governor's desk and has on occasion played "Fetch"
with him in the hallways. The resolution will probably die without
action, but it was the pure meanness of it that made it memorable.
Mr Fordice calls Lance his best friend. "You know what they
say in Washington," he told a reporter when the resolution
was introduced. "If you want a friend, get a dog."