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Sun-n-Sand was dump' of choice for lawmakers

By Staff
Aug. 22, 2001
My overriding memory of my first visit to the venerable Sun-N-Sand Hotel in Jackson as a young reporter 17 years ago was my visceral reaction to the first glance inside "What a dump!" No offense, mind you.
For back in the early 1980s, it was the "dump" of choice for most of the power brokers in the Mississippi Legislature and at the same time it was the place that I learned most of the lessons of value regarding any reasonable attempts at covering legislative news.
After years of reading about the nocturnal excesses of legislators the supposedly endless parade of receptions and dinners and cocktail parties that made so many headlines I was prepared to visit the Sun-N-Sand and see the bacchanal first-hand.
My first visit there was at the request of a young North Mississippi state representative from Monroe County. Now a state supreme court justice and soon to be a federal judge, Mills was in 1984 a freshman legislator from Aberdeen.
After reading one of my columns that raised Hell about lobbying expenditures, Mills said he thought a visit to "Ground Zero" might be educational for both of us. To be sure, Mills was right.
Sardines, undershorts
Current House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Billy McCoy of Rienzi was also one of my hosts. I was expecting to see a bunch of drunken middle-aged men slugging scotch and chasing secretaries. What I found was something in the words of Monty Python's John Cleese "completely different." What I saw was not unlike my freshman dormitory at Mississippi State only much more boring and sedate. So this is the high life, huh?
I found a bunch of married guys living in cramped hotel rooms, sitting around in their bare feet and undershorts eating popcorn, parched peanuts, hoop cheese, Vienna sausages, and sardines and crackers. A few had drinks, but not many and not much.
No small number were checking in with their wives and kids back home on the phone. There were cards games, groups watching pro basketball games on TV and more tall tales and bull sessions than one could endure. Laughter abounded as war stories unfolded.
Most of the rooms had hot plates, dorm refrigerators or other small appliances. As in most places where men are in charge of decor and housecleaning, the place smelled like a goat and was not in danger of making the cover of Southern Living. Rent was by the month.
Business on a handshake
Mills and McCoy had one rule "what's said in here stays in here." If you want it on the record, say so and take your chances. If you go back on your word and burn us in print, we won't talk to you "on background" about anything more controversial than the Capitol Buildings and Ground Committee deliberations, they said.
I went back many times over the years most unannounced looking for legislators I'd learned to trust and who seemed to trust me. Ate a lot of sardines. Heard a lot of stories. Got a lot of news and made a lot of friends.
Saw some go down over the years, too. The late Tommy Brooks a very gentle soul comes to mind. Almost 20 years later, I still never found a reason not to trust what Billy McCoy tells me. Likewise, I understand why Mike Mills' integrity is valued on the state's highest court and soon on the federal bench.
Doing business on a handshake is a dying art. The Sun-N-Sand which saw its share of the wild life was for me a place to learn how business got done in state government and by whom.
The Sun-N-Sand is still a "dump" a grand old dump worth remembering and a Mississippi political landmark.
Sid Salter is Perspective Editor/Columnist at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson and a syndicated Mississippi political columnist. Call him at (601) 961-7084, write P.O. Box 40, Jackson, MS 39206, or e-mail ssalter@jackson.gannett.com.