John Robert Smith for governor?
Sept. 2, 2001
About eight weeks into his third term as mayor of Meridian, is John Robert Smith looking at a possible candidacy for governor of Mississippi?
Some of his friends say he would make a good candidate for Mississippi's top elected job and his political opponents, well, they take a different view.
The next gubernatorial election comes in 2003 and with the current holder of the office showing strong signs of political weakness, who knows?
While Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck and others are reportedly weighing their options, it is still early in the game. We do know from a variety of sources that Republicans in Mississippi are aggressively on the prowl for a viable candidate whose name is not likely to be Mike Parker.
Parker lost the 1999 race to Gov. Ronnie Musgrove by a distorted vote of members of the Mississippi House of Representatives who did not reflect the electoral vote results of their districts. Now, he's been confirmed by the U.S. Senate and sworn in as an assistant secretary of the Army for civil works.
The way he handled his loss in the 1999 race still rankles many Mississippians who believe he should have been a more gracious loser. Republicans believe he should have been more attentive to the campaign in the last three weeks of the election and less attentive to the way he was going to organize the governor's office once he got elected.
But that was then. What about today?
East Mississippi is not a traditional launching ground for a successful statewide campaign, as Meridian's own Gil Carmichael found out in two races for governor and one for the U.S. Senate in the 1970s. Carmichael entered all of his campaigns with impeccable credentials in business and community affairs. He was, and remains, an articulate speaker with good ideas.
Blazing a trail
He was well ahead of his time, calling for a re-write of the Mississippi Constitution. He called for handgun registration, which was immediately interpreted as "gun control." He called for education reform.
In fact, a number of his ideas eventually worked their way into state government through a succession of Democratic governors. He blazed a trail that helped another Republican businessman finally become the first of his party since Reconstruction to win the governor's office. That candidate's name was Kirk Fordice and Mississippians elected him twice.
Carmichael, in the decade of the '70s, was a Republican running with all of the baggage Republicans ran with during those days. Watergate comes to mind, as does the fact that, at least in Mississippi, Republicans never had the grass roots organizations that helped elect Democrats.
Today, the Republican Party in Mississippi appeals to conservative voters and former Democrats. Republicans are organized to get out their vote on election day, as evidenced by Smith's very strong showing in Meridian's most Republican precincts in the last mayoral race.
The Democratic Party, both in Lauderdale County and in Mississippi, is in complete chaos.
To his credit, Smith is a savvy operator who is developing many of the skills modern politicians seem to find necessary. He goes to the places he needs to go and he shows well on TV. He seems to enjoy the intellectual challenge of trying to manipulate the media, to "spin" news in his favor. He has perfectly reasonable explanations for things that go wrong in the city.
He worked to get a new mall in Meridian, which did create new jobs. He told the story of the Meridian experience in a national trade publication. He helped convince the state Legislature to designate Meridian as the site of a proposed Southern Arts and Entertainment Center at Bonita Lakes. As a member of board of Amtrak, he has a voice in rail transportation, once Meridian's great strength. He worked the federal government to fund restoration of Union Station. He built a new No. 1 fire station.
On the downside, as even his friends concede, he is not known as a good manager. He has presided over a city with declining population and a shrinking tax base. He likes to do things his own way, which has led to some friction with citizens, city employees and county supervisors. The city is involved in a number of lawsuits over what seems to be his inability to compromise. Some will say he is super-sensitive to criticism and his defensiveness can come across as arrogance.
Between now and 2003, in order to build a credible candidacy, Smith needs to show tangible results here at home, something he could take to a statewide audience. Landing a new automotive manufacturing plant in Meridian would definitely help him confirm his "vision," as would more visible progress in downtown revitalization. These things are in the works.
All told, should he choose to offer himself up in a statewide political arena, 2003 could be a very interesting year.
Buddy Bynum is editor of The Meridian Star. Call him at 693-1551, ext. 3213, or e-mail him at email@example.com.