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State GOP chairman on Mississippi politics

By By William F. West / community editor
August 18, 2002
State Republican Party chairman Jim Herring met last week with editors of The Meridian Star to discuss the contest between U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering and U.S. Rep. Ronnie Shows as well as the statewide political scene.
The latter is also particularly interesting given that former GOP national committee leader Haley Barbour of Yazoo City is testing the waters for a possible campaign for governor in 2003.
Herring, 63, of Canton, is a former district attorney who was a Democrat until quietly switching to the GOP in 1980. He also served as a state Appeals Court judge before being chosen to lead the Mississippi Republicans.
The Meridian Star: Is there a "Democrats for Pickering" organization that you are behind or familiar with at all? Is there any kind of organized effort?
Jim Herring: I don't think it's organized, but there are obviously many, many Democrats for Pickering. As we know, in many of these counties, the local officials who are elected are Democrats and are conservative. And they think like Republicans but so far they have not changed parties. He's just got strong support throughout the county elected officials.
The Star: Y'all are doing tracking polls and things, aren't you? What kind of bounce did you see from the presidential visit, if any?
Herring: The party is not doing any polls. We are confident that Pickering is ahead. And there's no doubt from anybody that witnessed the events that the president's visit energized people, certainly in the area where he made his speeches.
Mothers and children and grandparents and everybody else were just fighting over those tickets to get to that event there at the school and the people were out in the streets waving flags. President Bush has a way in his persona, much better than on TV, I think of inspiring and uplifting the people. That was, of course, the game plan.
In the Mike Parker race for governor, he lost the election by 8,000 votes statewide. It's very clear that the Republican vote was down in traditional Republican areas, for whatever reason. And my experience is that, typically, when Republicans are excited, we win elections. And they are very excited now about this Pickering race and I think they'll be excited next year.
The Star: And Haley Barbour is going to take the plunge?
Herring: Well, it looks like he's giving it mighty serious consideration. He's spending a lot of time down here thinking or trying to decide if he is not going to do it. And he was with President Bush and welcomed him when the president got off of Air Force One.
The Star: Should Barbour announce that he would not run for governor, are there any others out there who would like to try a run?
Herring: There are a number of potential candidates for governor on the Republican side, all of whom would beat Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, in my opinion. Every one of them Dick Hall (the state Central District Transportation Commissioner), Bill Hawks (an undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture) and Dave Dennis (from the Gulf Coast). Any of those three can beat and would beat Gov. Musgrove, in my opinion. (Meridian Mayor) John Robert Smith he could beat Gov. Musgrove.
The Star: You believe the governor is that ineffective?
Herring: I do. I think he is. I think he's discredited. We're in a recession. They had a fiasco on Medicaid, a total lack of planning on the commitment of state funds to things like that and several other areas. We had a substantial rainy day fund. It's gone. They're dipping into the tobacco trust fund.
I was at a meeting in Tupelo with Sen. Alan Nunnelee, who, by the way, would also be a great candidate for statewide office. He spoke and he was comparing what happened in Tennessee to what's happening in Mississippi.
Because of fiscal irresponsibility, they began to dip into their rainy day fund and their tobacco trust fund. And, now, without doing the proper planning to correct Medicaid problems and other problems, people in Tennessee are voting on a monumental increase in taxes. And according to Sen. Nunnelee, if we don't correct our problems now, we're going to face the same thing Tennessee's facing.
The Star: To what do you credit the disintegration of the Musgrove administration? What constituency groups has he lost, in your judgment? How's that playing?
Herring: Let me say this: Gov. Musgrove will be a tough opponent. And he's making every effort at the present time to use the position of governor to enhance his position for re-election. There's no question about it. In every way, he's trying to do that.
But I do believe that Gov. Ronnie Musgrove has lost the mainstream the independent voters. He may still have the traditional core Democratic votes the liberal wing of his party, as represented by the state executive committee. But he has lost the mainstream Mississippi voter, in my opinion. He has become much more liberal in his approach and his leadership as governor has angered a lot of people.
The Star: In what way has he become liberal? People use those terms rather freely. Could you be a little more specific?
Herring: Well, let's just take this Medicaid situation. They sent out the county Democratic executive committees to sign up people for Medicaid without any planning or taking into consideration that it was going to cost the taxpayers of the state substantial sums of money.
As I understand, it was a 3-to-1 match. And they went out signing up people for Medicaid and CHIPs (the Children's Health Insurance Program) and everybody that they could find.
And now they are finding that they cannot fund it. They had a crisis last year. They're going to have a bigger crisis this year. And it's going to cut into everything from teacher salaries to everything else that it costs to run state government.
The Star: It's going to be next to impossible to get a tax increase passed in the Legislature with the legislative elections next year. Is that positioning itself to be the big issue in next year's gubernatorial election?
Herring: I think it will be a big issue.
The Star: How about elections? Secretary of State Eric Clark has some points that he has made. There's been much back-and-forth. We had a great example with a constitutional crisis in the governor's race, but on the ground level, we still seem to have problems with conducting clean elections. What do you see as potential problems in Mississippi with election reforms?
Herring: Secretary Clark has talked a good game, but the fact remains that he has failed to address in any meaningful way the most important election reform that could be passed in Mississippi, which would be to require Voter ID of people who go to the polls to vote.
He has given a lukewarm endorsement to a very watered-down rendition of Voter ID that would even leave it up to the local poll workers to make it acceptable not to produce any kind of voter identification if you are over a certain age.
And I think that you will find that Voter ID would be the most effective form of election reform that could be passed. But the Democratic Party of Mississippi has opposed it. They tried to get the state Democratic Executive Committee to endorse even the watered-down version of Voter ID and they rejected it.
Secretary Clark introduced this legislation after the fact when he wouldn't let his election reform task force even consider it or debate the issue. And then he came out with this watered-down version and made no effort to fight for it in the Legislature. And it quietly died in the committees. So he's sailing under false colors on Voter ID.