By By Buddy Bynum / editor
April 28, 2002
Today, a little political history in the person of Meridian's first three Republicans. I had the pleasure of talking to them the other day when prospective GOP gubernatorial candidate Haley Barbour came through town. All three are still active in party politics and, should Barbour make the 2003 race, I have no doubt they'll be making contributions not only financial to his campaign, too.
I hope I have this right. I'm sure they'll correct me if I'm reporting it incorrectly.
In the 1960s, at a time when the late Alabama Gov. George Wallace was casting a long shadow over independent party affairs and as U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, now a Republican of South Carolina, was lining up Dixiecrats to oppose the national political parties, Meridian's own Jimmie LeLaurin stepped forward to claim the distinction as the city's first publicly-pronounced, unabashed Republican.
LeLaurin recruited engineer Gene Damon and, together, they recruited then-car dealer Gil Carmichael. They even printed up a few membership cards, giving Carmichael the honor of getting the first one. It still hangs on his office wall.
Before long, the old joke about Republicans meeting in a phone booth grew stale as LeLaurin, Damon and Carmichael organized a viable local Republican Party branch and recruited others. They have fond memories of the early days of their involvement in various political campaigns at a time when being called a Republican was akin to an insult.
Well, it wasn't akin to an insult. It was an insult.
The Civil War and the carpet-bagging years of Reconstruction did tend to give Republicans a bad name and drove most Mississippians to the polls to cast ballots for Democrats no matter what. Republican candidates for statewide office failed against mostly segregationist, yellow-dog Democrats. Mississippians even initially preferred Wallace over Richard Nixon, at least until 1972.
Carmichael tried for the U.S. Senate once and for governor twice. Not until 1991 would Mississippians elect a Republican governor. That's when a virtually unknown Vicksburg contractor named Kirk Fordice won the office. He was reelected in 1995 and served two terms. Fordice was the first Republican governor since Reconstruction, the first person to be elected to successive terms and the first to complete two successive terms.
Now, Meridian's had two Republican mayors, the late Tom Stuart and John Robert Smith, who has been elected three times. Two U.S. Senators, Thad Cochran and Trent Lott, both Republicans, are entrenched. Both get landslide proportions of the local vote. A Republican conservative congressman, Chip Pickering, was elected to the U.S. House seat held by conservative Democrat G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery. Republicans hold city and county offices.
The party of lower taxes, less government and conservative values has made a place for itself in once die-hard Democrat East Mississippi. People in the area have begun to notice that political party affiliation can matter. And the local groundwork was laid nearly four decades ago by LeLaurin, Damon and Carmichael.
What does the future hold? Maybe we should ask them.
The Main Event'
The Lauderdale County Agri-Center was clearly the place to be on Thursday as hundreds of folks turned out for a fine trade show sponsored by the East Mississippi Business Development Corp.
The 14th annual Main Event was the most successful yet. It was a showcase of the diversity in Meridian's businesses community. It contributed to a key marketing technique we don't see enough anymore face-to-face contact.
It was a good opportunity to see what kinds of business services and products are produced by local people. Congratulations to the organizers and, most of all, to the more than 100 local business enterprises that participated. Good show.