WHEN CIGAR-CHOMPING Mississippi Sen. James Eastland finally announced last spring--with considerable hemming and hawing--that he would not seek reelection, he let loose a fierce pack of political hounds from all over the Magnolia State. Soon after Eastland said he would vacate his long-held seat, about a dozen state politicos started to cash in on old political debts and plan their bids for the most prestigious political post in Mississippi. Mississippians, meanwhile, braced themselves for more of the same cliches and hackneyed phrases that echoed in past campaigns.
The early favorite was Gov. Cliff Finch, a rough-hewn country boy from Northeast Mississippi--a section of the United States that rivals Louisiana's Cajun Country as the most removed from life as we know it. A self-proclaimed reformed racist and unquestionably a political opportunist, Finch had managed to put together a coalition of small farmers and poor laborers, both black and white. He appealed to poor folks with vague platitudes about working together, hand in hand, for the betterment of all. His symbols were the lunchpail and bulldozer. But after two years in office, it became painfully obvious to many Finch supporters that despite the rhetoric, Finch mainly worried about the betterment of Finch. Mississippi newspapers revealed time and time again that Finch's number one priority as governor was to get his old buddies on the state payroll where they would have ample time to help their boss fulfill his political ambitions.
And that was only for starters: Finch would show up for meetings late and then read the wrong speech; lie about employment statistics to create the illusion that his administration was solving the state's devastating unemployment problem; publicly denounce the state legislature just before they went in to vote on one of the few concrete bills Finch presented. In the Nixonian tradition, his cohorts told Jackson bankers to add to Finch's coffer or risk losing lucrative business with the state government.
Occasionally, Finch's old political finesse would shine. At a country barbeque, he would woo redneck throngs by talking about his childhood days working on the farm and toting water out to daddy in a fruit jar. But even Mississippi has gained some sophistication these days, and the old ploy just didn't work any longer.
Finch's defeat in the run-off election in the Democratic primary has destroyed--for the time being at least--any speculating about a new kind of color-blind populism in Mississippi. In the wake of his defeat, Finch appears more a burp from Mississippi's populist past than the harbinger of a new kind of politics. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether Finch's decline was due to the shakiness of his alleged political base or to the numerous political blunders Finch made during the first two years of his governorship--blunders that a more astute populist politician could have avoided.
Maurice Dantin, the victor of the fiercely competitive Democratic primary, is not a candidate who excites. In fact, the entire primary battle--except perhaps for Finch's participation--suggested that Mississippi is losing whatever politcal uniqueness it once had. The speeches bored, the issues were non-existent, and the candidates came across as conservative facsimiles of one another. All stood slightly to the right of Ronald Reagan. All were good family men, churchgoers, Rotarian-types who seemed to have gone straight from Ole Miss to Ole Miss Law School, on to the D.A.'s office, private practice and finally politics.
NO ONE KNOWS why voters chose Dantin over the other country club clones. He is, to be sure, a fresh face, having run for statewide political office only once before. Moreover, Dantin came across as the antithesis of Finch, who scared Mississippi's power elite with his howling mobs of supporters. For a while, Finch's excited antics pleased a lot of Mississippians because they thought his fervor would be channeled to bring about concrete reforms. When this went for naught, the poor whites and blacks who supported him decided they prefer a man who quietly does nothing to one who yells a lot and does nothing. Calm, soft-spoken Dantin filled the bill.
Unlike past political races in Mississippi, Dantin's victory in the Democratic primary has not assured him a spot in the Senate. Strong challenges from a Republican and an Independent stand between Dantin and the Eastland legacy. Both Thad Cochran, a Republican Congressman, and Charles Evers, brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, plan to be spoilers.
Evers is particularly inscrutable. One of the first blacks elected mayor of a Mississippi town since the Reconstruction, and a strong candidate for governor in 1971, Evers has an outside chance of rattling Mississippi politics to the bone by becoming the first black to be elected to a powerful position in the state. Unfortunately, the price he has been forced to pay is high. Evers, in an attempt to attract whites, has apparently decided to take a more conservative line than any other candidate. His campaign speeches before white groups make him sound more like a rich Delta plantation progeny than the spokesman for the civil and political rights of Mississippi blacks. Evers's conservative pabulum is almost what one would expect to hear from a George Wallace or a Strom Thurmond: defense of the American way of life from the Russian threat, pursuit of fiscal integrity to wipe out the nefarious national debt, welfare reform to ferret out the cheaters, etc. When Evers isn't talking like an arch-conservative, he's persuading Mississippians he can better fatten their wallets than any other politician. Evers boasts of his Washington connections and how only he can "bring the bacon home to Mississippi." Any ideals he's ever had have given way to practical politics.
Of course, that's precisely the reason Evers has a prayer at all. Evers, who drew over 100,000 votes in his 1971 race for governor, hopes to attract twice that many votes this time around and win the election with a plurality. In order to do this, Evers must garner about 90 per cent of the black vote, win about 10 per cent of the white vote, and pray it rains on election day. His chances are slim, but alive.
Cochran clearly has the most to gain by Evers's presence in the Senate race. Evers could draw enough votes away from Dantin to ruin Dantin's chances while still failing himself. This would hand the Senate spot to Cochran, who would then become the first Republican since Reconstruction to hold such a powerful political plum in Mississippi. Cochran resembles Dantin in many ways. Ideologically, the two are identical. Cochran, however, is the special pride and joy of Mississippi's powerful Country Club Set--a class of wealthy planters and businessmen who can usually fork out enough money to catapult their candidate to the top. Cochran served an impeccable term in Congress by conservative Mississippi standards: his ADA rating was a flat zero. His silver hair, boyish looks and stern businessman-like demeanor, combined with his voting record, make him a formidable candidate.
AS THINGS STAND now, the election is a toss-up. The fact that a black and a Republican could pose serious threats to the Democratic crowned prince testifies to the political upheavals that have shaken Mississippi. Ten years ago, Cochran and Evers could not have harbored a hope of winning.
But the new diversity of Mississippi politics carries with it a large measure of irony. The now-enfranchised black voters, who constitute about 30 per cent of the electorate, are unable to exercise the power of their numbers. They rallied behind Finch and helped elect him governor, but the quintessential opportunist sold them out. They have a black candidate, but he too has changed his tune. Once again, Mississippi's poor--both black and white--stand unrepresented. The Country Club Set has won again.
EVERS FOR EVERYBODYLast month Charles Evers lost his bid to become to first black governor of Mississippi. Evers had said that he
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