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Slimantics: Mr. Smith goes to Jackson


Slim Smith



Beginning today and continuing each Thursday, this column will be devoted to state politics under the theory that what happens in the legislature is very much a local story. Each year, the laws that spew forth from Jackson have a direct impact on the lives of people throughout the Golden Triangle. 


As I thought about how to introduce this column, I thought of the old movie, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," which tells the story of a well-intentioned, albeit naive, young Senator who went to Washington with high hopes and was very nearly destroyed by the cynical, largely corrupt, system he encountered there. 


I will draw just one parallel between my efforts in this column going forward and the movie. I'll admit to the same naivety that accompanied the more noble Mr. Smith of the movie. 


I've been to the Mississippi Capitol just twice -- once as a delegate to Boys State and a few months later, as a senior in high school. 


So I tackle this assignment with no particular expertise in the subject. 


Given that, I thought it wise to consider "how the sausage gets made" in Jackson these days through the perspective of three state senators. 


Sen. Hob Bryan of Amory is among the most respected persons in the Mississippi Legislature for a couple of reasons. First, he's smart. He finished second in his class at the prestigious University of Virginia Law School. Second, he's been in the state senate for 35 years now. That he is one of just three Democrats to serve as a committee chair (Judiciary B) in a legislature where the Republicans have super majority in both chambers is a testament to the respect -- often grudging respect -- he has earned over more than three decades in Jackson. 


By comparison, Angela Turner-Ford (D, West Point) and Chuck Younger (R, Columbus) are relative newcomers. This is Turner-Ford's sixth session, Younger's fifth. 


Bryan says he has an advantage that Turner-Ford and Younger do not enjoy. 


His ability to learn the business of government, he said, has nothing to do with smarts or an intuitive understanding of how government operates. 


"Nobody has a working knowledge of this stuff when he wins an election," Bryan said. "I know I didn't have a clue. To the extent I learned, it was from listening to hours and hours of debate and listening to people who had different opinions. 


"That doesn't happen anymore. What was a de facto open process when I got here - where each of the 174 of us who were elected, however unfortunate that might have been, tried to make up our own minds - has become a system that is completely closed. The decisions are made by the Lt. Gov. and the Speaker and are ratified by the masses. It's perfunctory." 


The bigger and more important the legislation, the more secretive the process. Lt. Governor Tate Reeves and Speaker Phillip Gunn guard those bills like they were child porn. 


Turner-Ford said this week's road/bridge bill is illustrative of how little information is shared by the rank-and-file legislators. 


"The bill went to committee the day before yesterday and was presented yesterday to vote on," she said Wednesday. "This was something that should have been introduced early in the session so we could really examine it. 


"Basically, we were operating on the bill summary and what we were told by the chairman when the bill was sent to the floor. You are put in the position of having to rely on your gut feeling and whatever information you have at the time. 


"It's very frustrating. Under the current framework, you just do the best you can. It's not how we should be operating, but what can you do?" 


Lest you are inclined to dismiss Bryan and Turner-Ford as minority party malcontents, consider Younger's evaluation of the process. 


"Hell, I'm disgusted, too," Younger said. "We're all disgusted. Even Republicans are disgusted with not having more say. I'm sick of having the head guys make all the decisions. 


"It's not right." 


Welcome to Jackson, Mr. Smith.


Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]


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