Taylor solidifies bond with voters after Katrina

Published 11:32 pm Saturday, October 21, 2006

U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor is all rolled-up sleeves and kinetic energy as he paces in front of a podium during his luncheon speech to the Biloxi Rotary Club.

“I’m going to step on some toes here, but I think it’s important,” he says, launching into a critique of insurance companies’ rejection of thousands of Hurricane Katrina claims in south Mississippi.

A few of the 60-some-odd Rotarians exchange glances over their plates of spicy stuffed shrimp. They’re used to Taylor’s maverick, say-anything style.

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The 17-year congressman is a conservative Democrat who’s as likely to buck his own party as to support it on issues such as abortion. He faces only nominal Republican opposition in the Nov. 7 election — accountant Randy McDonnell of Biloxi, who lost to Taylor by wide margins in 1998 and 2000.

Like Mississippi’s three other incumbent U.S. House members and Republican Sen. Trent Lott, Taylor barely needs to break a sweat because opponents are running low-budget campaigns.

Still, Taylor is keeping a busy schedule of public appearances across his district that’s struggling with a long recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

Taylor and his wife, Margaret, lost their own Bay St. Louis home in the monster storm nearly 14 months ago. And, like thousands of others across the coast, the Taylors are suing their insurance company over unpaid claims in a wind-versus-water dispute.

“Because he has been damaged himself, he understands what people are going through,” Biloxi businesswoman Liz Joachim says before Taylor speaks at the Rotary meeting at Mary Mahoney’s Old French House — a landmark restaurant that suffered heavy damage but managed to reopen several weeks after Katrina.

During a 35-minute speech, Taylor barely glances at his notes, and he moves without transition from one subject to the next.

Katrina recovery. Military readiness. Dependence on foreign oil.

Even facing an audience of conservative business people in a district that gave more than two-thirds of its votes to President Bush in 2004, Taylor does nothing to tone down his criticism of two of his most frequent verbal targets — Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s handling of the war in Iraq and the insurance industry’s behavior after Katrina.

As Taylor sets off on insurers, a man in the audience exhales deeply.

“I’m entitled to my opinion,” Taylor says, patting his hands downward as if bouncing a basketball or calming a nervous child. “I look around and see places that aren’t rebuilding and you ask ’em why and you hear, ’Well, I didn’t get any wind money. Then I was notified that my rates are going up. And I’m wondering, gee, they didn’t pay me last time. Do I really want to rebuild and let them do it to me again?”’

Taylor talks about the half-dozen times he has traveled to Baghdad since the start of the Iraq war. He says that as a congressman, his military escorts insist that he travel in vehicles with jammers — beer-can sized devices designed to block signals that detonate roadside bombs. He says the devices are not routinely used on American service members’ vehicles, but should be.

“The Department of Defense, and Rumsfeld in particular, have been cheap when it came to protecting the kids,” Taylor says. “Congress keeps allocating the money but the kids aren’t getting protected.”

When the floor opens for questions after the speech, the only one comes from a woman who sounds exasperated: “Why are we in Iraq?”

“We’re in Iraq because the president convinced a sizable majority in both houses, including me, that the Iraqis had weapons of mass destruction,” Taylor says — and the woman starts to argue.

He does the slow air-basketball dribble with both hands.

“That’s why we’re in Iraq,” Taylor says slowly. “Once we got to Iraq,” he sighs, “I mean it’s great irony — here’s the president one day saying ’mission accomplished’ and now a couple of years later saying anyone who says the mission’s accomplished wants to cut and run. So there’s been some wavering on everybody’s part.” Some in the audience squirm in their seats, but others nod their heads.

The maverick, I’ll-say-what-I-want-to-say quality is at the heart of Taylor’s appeal — even for people such as Ellie Vasilopoulous, who says she parts ways with Taylor’s criticism of the handling of the war in Iraq.

“I don’t totally agree with some of the things he says, but that’s what Gene is about. You know where he stands,” says Vasilopoulous, who got to know Taylor when she was human resources director at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi from 1993-99.

Taylor — graying blond, perpetually tanned and named Mr. August in a “Hunks of the House 1998” calendar compiled by then-U.S. Rep. Susan Molinari, R-N.Y. — represents a district that stretches from the Katrina-battered beaches up through about 150 miles of piney woods in 15 southeastern Mississippi counties.

Major employers include Northrop Grumman shipbuilding in Pascagoula, military installations such as Keesler, and the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. The glitzy Gulf Coast casinos were walloped by Katrina, but are showing a strong rebound. The district also includes hardscrabble, inland towns that have lost hundreds of garment-sewing jobs since the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect more than a dozen years ago.

Taylor’s Republican opponent, McDonnell, has barely gotten a nod of recognition from his own party. McDonnell says he has spent only about $4,500. The latest Federal Election Commission records show Taylor had $191,159 on hand as of Sept. 30.

In a phone interview from his office, McDonnell, 59, said he was “embarrassed” to even put his name on the ballot, but he thought Taylor should have an opponent.

“I feel the majority of south Mississippians are not well represented by Democrats in Congress because they don’t believe in the extreme views of the Democratic Party,” McDonnell said. “A vote for Taylor is a vote for Nancy Pelosi to take over Congress, and I think that will be bad for America.”

Taylor, in an interview after the Rotary Club speech, says he has had the “great luxury” of not having to campaign much this year, but he’s not taking votes for granted.

“I would never ask for a job if I wasn’t doing it well already,” he says.