Legislature: 'Thirty possums hissin' in a barn'

February 1, 2013 11:08:36 AM

Jeff Clark - [email protected]


From tales of a former governor procuring male prostitutes to a U.S. senator speaking off the cuff at a birthday party about admiring a segregationalist presidential candidate, Mississippi politics have had a long -standing love/hate relationship with the national media.  


But within the last week, the national attention has focused on Lowndes County, where two local representatives have become comedic targets. Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, and Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, co-authored House Bill 490 which would "assert state sovereignty." Coverage of the bill has made the rounds from Jackson's Clarion Ledger to the national online news group, the Huffington Post. 


Although Chism has said the bill was to enhance 10th Amendment rights and it was a response to gun control and federal health care, some members of the Legislature have been highly critical of HB 490. 


16th District Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, has never been one to shy away from controversy and he has never had a problem with being outspoken, When asked his opinions on the bill and the attention it is receiving, Holland was blunt: 


"I think it is ludicrous and it is just stupid as hell," Holland said. "It is wasting my time and the time of our legislators. Chism is suspect but Jeff (Smith) is brilliant. I don't know why he introduced this and his response to it didn't make any sense. It's been 165 years since the Civil War. We cannot defy federal law. There's no place in the Legislature for this bill." 


Holland also knows something about national media scrutiny. In early 2012, Holland, with tongue firmly in cheek, introduced a bill that would change the name of the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of America. While the bill garnered national scrutiny, Holland took it all in stride and said it was all done with a sense of humor. 


"I'm a tongue-in-cheek guy myself," Holland said. "Sometimes you have to get the legislators kicked up from time to time. But Chism and Jeff's bill is ridiculous." 


Mississippi politicians have provided much fodder for satirists, especially in the last month. US Rep. Steve Palazzo, who represents south Mississippi, was heavily criticized by The Daily Show's Jon Stewart on Comedy Central. Stewart chastised Palazzo, who lives on the Gulf Coast and heavily supported federal aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina, initially voted against sending federal aid to those affected by super-storm Sandy on the East Coast. 


The stance by many state conservatives on newly proposed gun control legislation has also led to some disparaging remarks from humorists. Gov. Phil Bryant was the butt of a joke on Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update where faux anchor Seth Myers characterized the Mississippi Legislature as "30 possums hissin' in a barn."  


Dr. Marty Wiseman, director of The Stennis Institute for Government at Mississippi State University, said the state's dubious past has made it an obvious target for satirists. 


"I get reminded from time to time that, as much as we love Mississippi, we have such a reputation from our past that sometimes the national media still sees us as buffoons," Wiseman said. "We have not yet outlived our past -- it's the same old Mississippi to the national media and comedians. We're an easy target. Look at the events that happened in Oxford on election night (where a group of white students confronted black students over the reelection of President Obama). It probably happened elsewhere, too. But the fact it happened at Ole Miss really amplified it." 


Chism and Smith's bill has also been the subject of ridicule on a national level. Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central's Colbert Report, another faux news program, poked fun at the bill and Smith in particular, referring to Smith's trademark mustache as "two tempura shrimp mating on his upper lip." 


"I think Colbert's response was pretty predictable," Wiseman said. "Seeing his take on Jeff Smith was kind of strange. Jeff's a very smart man and Mr. Colbert doesn't even know him. Jeff's built a great legal career and he was one vote away from becoming Speaker of the House. He's a brilliant man and Mr. Colbert made fun of his mustache. I'm sure Jeff has a sense of humor. I think Chism prides himself on being such a right-wing guy that he's probably comfortable with all of this attention."