Slimantics: Rhonda Keenum's role on Reeves' campaign goes beyond bad optics


Slim Smith



During his speech Monday at the Starkville Rotary Club, Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum posed a few questions to his audience. 


What would it mean if the state could dramatically increase the percentage of its residents who attained a college degree, which -- at 20 percent -- is the second lowest in the nation? 


What impact would that have on incomes and money for K-12 education, roads/bridges/infrastructure, poverty, crime, he asked. 


Those questions, Keenum said, are what drives his thinking as MSU's president. A four-year college education, he asserted, is absolutely critical in improving the lives of our people. 


I don't doubt for a moment that what Keenum said is true. 


I do, however, have a question of my own, a question that is entirely relevant to the topic: If higher education is so vitally important, why is Keenum's wife, Rhonda, on the finance committee for Tate Reeves' gubernatorial campaign? 


After all, as Maya Angelou famously noted, "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time." 


What Tate Reeves has shown us since his arrival as lieutenant governor in 2012 is that he is no friend of higher education. 


In Mississippi, the lieutenant governor wields enormous power. With that title, he also runs the Mississippi Senate, and Reeves' autocratic rule of that chamber has never been questioned. That's why it's notable that during his tenure, the Legislature has cut funding for higher education almost every year. 


For several years, Keenum and the presidents of the state's seven other public universities have made urgent pleas to the Legislature to increase funding and make a real investment in higher education. 


The response? Since 2016, IHL funding has been cut by $107 million. That was the same year Reeves pushed through the Legislature the highest corporate tax cut in the state's history - $280 million. If the state doesn't have enough money to invest in higher education, it's only because it chose not to do so. They can't cry poverty this time. 


At this point, does anyone even have to ask where Reeves really stands on higher education funding? 


Keenum -- and presumably his wife -- should know the answer to that question as well as anyone. 


Granted, Rhonda Keenum is her own person and has every right to believe as she chooses and do as she chooses. 


But as the spouse of one of the state's most important employees, Rhonda Keenum's role in the Reeves campaign is not just a case of terrible optics: It undermines her husband's credibility. 


When the wife of a university president is out there raising money for a candidate who has shown himself to be no friend of higher education, you have to wonder about the Keenums' reasoning. 


I don't believe it is going out on a limb to suggest that the spouse of a high-profile state employee should not be a member of anyone's political campaign. I further believe, given all we know, that's particularly true of this particular spouse in this particular campaign.


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


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