Calling Oxford Home, Republican Senator readies for balance-of-power shift

Published 6:40 pm Thursday, January 4, 2007

Mississippi’s senior senator is committing the zip code — 38655 — of his new address to memory and planning to transfer his voter registration out of Hinds County for the first time.

“It’s nice to have a place of my own,” Thad Cochran said of the lakefront cabin he has built three miles south of Oxford. “It’s a peaceful place out there.”

Completed in October, it’s so far served as both a retreat from the bustle of Washington, D.C., and an out-of-session base from which the senator can travel his home state. Cochran, who has offices in Oxford, Jackson and Gulfport, has not had his own house in Mississippi since the early 1970s. Instead, he said, his official residence was for many years an apartment adjoining his parents’ home in Byram, and later the Hilton Hotel in Jackson.

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The 69-year-old senator chose to put down roots in Oxford both as a practical move and for nostalgia’s sake. Before attending the University of Mississippi as an undergraduate and law student, he spent parts of three summers on the campus as a child while his educator-parents got their master’s degrees.

“I learned to play tennis and swim out there, to play pingpong and shuffleboard,” he said. “We had the run of the campus.”

Spending his last few days before the new year in Oxford, Cochran was preparing to return to Washington in time for Tuesday’s national funeral service for Gerald Ford. The former president was a central figure in Cochran’s early political career. He served as the Republican minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives when Cochran was first elected to Congress in 1972.

The Republican senator has lost his chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he’ll remain the ranking member as Democrats assume leadership in both the Senate and House. To this year’s shift in power, Cochran brings the perspective of having served in an era when that balance was much more challenging.

“If you were a Republican in the House back in ’73-’74, you didn’t have anything to do with anything,” he said. “You could make speeches and you could go to meetings and you could ask questions at hearings, but you didn’t have any influence at all.

“And I thought, this is just ridiculous — sitting up here watching other people make laws and make decisions.”

It was that frustration which prompted him in 1978 to run for his current seat in the Senate. As it was then, that side of the Capitol remains the more bipartisan of the two today, he said.

“Realizing the Democrats only have a one- or two-vote margin, they have to have a consensus since 60 people have to agree on just about every issue that comes before the Senate,” he said of the balancing act that begins this week in Washington.

“Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you will have an opportunity to be an influence in the process, depending on your interest, your diligence, your committee assignments and the relationships you’ve developed over time.”

Although he’s losing the Appropriations chairmanship, Cochran said he still intends to ensure that Mississippi gets its “fair share” of federal funding for economic development projects, social programs and the ongoing recovery effort from Hurricane Katrina.

“We’ll have opportunities to continue to help in all those areas,” he said, noting that U.S. Rep. Roger Wicker’s position on the House Appropriations Committee has also been strategic for the state. “It doesn’t mean we’ll always get our way or that we’ll get what we ask for just by asking. But it gives us a seat at the table and a position to influence the outcome.”