Lott draws praise as he prepares to leave Senate

Published 4:23 pm Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Friends and colleagues say Mississippi will lose clout on Capitol Hill when Sen. Trent Lott retires by the end of this year

Lott, 66, announced Monday that he’ll leave with five years left in his current six-year term. He said he doesn’t have another job lined up, but he and his wife, Tricia, believe it’s time to move on after 35-year career that took him to the heights — and depths — of Washington politics.

“For a boy from Pascagoula, Mississippi, it’s been quite a wild ride but a very enjoyable one and one that I’m proud of,” Lott told about two dozen supporters Monday during at a news conference at the Lafont Inn in his hometown.

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Lott has spent 19 years in the Senate after serving 16 in the House. He started his career as an aide for U.S. Rep. William Colmer, D-Miss.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour will appoint an interim replacement for Lott within 10 days of the senator’s resignation. The governor said he’ll set a special election for Nov. 4, 2008 — the date of the general election.

In a news release, Barbour said he would not be a candidate himself.

Democrat Ronnie Musgrove, who served one term as governor before being defeated by Barbour in 2003, said Monday he is “seriously considering” running for the Senate seat Lott is leaving.

Musgrove said in an interview that that even though the South has been largely Republican over the past several years, “people in the South are just as frustrated and concerned about Washington not doing anything about the spiraling cost of health care, the increased cost of gas, the shaky economy and the housing problem.”

Musgrove said he’ll make a decision in the next few days. He said running for a Senate race would cost millions of dollars.

Republican U.S. Reps. Chip Pickering and Roger Wicker and Democratic former Attorney General Mike Moore are among those who might be contenders to succeed Lott. Moore did not immediately return calls, and Pickering and Wicker remained mum on whether they’ll run in the special election.

Lott leaves as the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. His colleagues elected him party whip years after Lott lost his job as Senate majority leader over remarks he made at retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party in 2002. Lott had saluted the South Carolina senator with comments later interpreted as support for southern segregationist policies.

In his home state, Lott showed little damage because of the Thurmond remarks. He was re-elected in 2006 with 63 percent of the vote, defeating state Rep. Erik Fleming, D-Jackson. Friends praised his work on behalf of Mississippi since Hurricane Katrina wiped out structures on Aug. 29, 2005 — including Lott’s own beachside home.

Paul Moore, 80, a retired physician and longtime friend and neighbor in Pascagoula, said if not for Katrina, Lott probably wouldn’t have run for re-election in 2006. Still, Moore said the senator’s announcement of an early resignation surprised him.

“I thought he would stay on, get us more money,” Moore said with a laugh.

Pickering was first elected to the House in 1996 after having served on Lott’s Senate staff. Pickering announced this fall that he will not seek re-election to the House in 2008. He said Lott “has been a mentor to me and I have learned much from him.”

“Sen. Lott has served our nation and Mississippi with devotion, energy, and passion,” said Pickering said in a news release.

Wicker said Lott “was especially effective in advocating for Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Even as he coped with the loss of his home, he was a force in helping secure the resources Mississippi needed to get back on track.”

Dave Dennis, a Gulfport-based businessman and chairman of the Federal Reserve Board in New Orleans, said after Lott’s news conference Monday that he was stunned to learn of the senator’s decision from a congressional staffer Sunday night.

“I’m happy for him. He’s been in 35 years of dedicated service to his constituents, and that’s all you can ask out of a person,” Dennis said.

Mississippi Republican Party chairman Jim Herring of Canton said Lott has been “one of the great leaders for Mississippi and a great leader for our country.”

“His service to Mississippi and to the nation as been exceptional and distinguished,” Herring said in an interview. “His decision is a great loss for Mississippi and for the country.”