State losing vocal leaders in senate

Published 7:27 pm Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Mississippi is getting a fresh crop of lawmakers next month, and one big question remains in the Senate.

Who will do all the talking?

The 52-member Senate has 14 new faces. Among those departing — either voluntarily or because voters gave them the boot — are some of the most active debaters.

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Sen. Charlie Ross, R-Brandon, could always be counted on to defend the conservative line on issues from gun ownership to abortion. The Harvard-educated lawyer had to choose this year between seeking another term in the Senate and running for the open job of lieutenant governor. He opted to try for the higher office, and he lost in the Republican primary to fellow Rankin Countian Phil Bryant. Now, Ross is running for Congress.

Bryant, the current state auditor, defeated Democratic Rep. Jamie Franks in the general election and will take over when Republican Amy Tuck finishes her second term as lieutenant governor in early January.

Ross’ replacement in his Madison and Rankin county district is Lee Yancey, a Christian conservative Republican whose teenage suburban supporters got attention on YouTube with a homemade rap video: “He’s so cool but he ain’t too fancy. Put in your vote for Lee Yancey. Uh. Yeah.”

Voters in a coastal district chose early retirement for another of the most vocal senators, Tommy Robertson, R-Moss Point. With a penchant for seersucker suits and an “I-don’t-care-if-you-don’t-like-me” attitude, Robertson led the Finance Committee for the past eight years with a bulldozer style that often flattened his opponents.

Robertson sided with Tuck in 2006 as she pushed to increase the tax on cigarettes and decrease the tax on groceries. But during Tuck’s lame-duck session in 2007, Robertson switched sides and helped Republican Gov. Haley Barbour block the bill.

Robertson is being succeeded by another attorney, Michael Watson of Pascagoula, who sharply criticized the incumbent’s stance against the tobacco tax.

On the other end of the political spectrum is Sen. Gloria Williamson of Philadelphia, the outspoken former chairwoman of the state Democratic Party. In a state where gun owners’ rights are sacrosanct, Williamson spoke out in 2006 against a bill that extended people’s ability to claim self-defense when using deadly force against intruders to their homes, vehicles or businesses. The bill, sponsored by Ross and pushed by the National Rifle Association, became law.

“I hate this bill,” Williamson said. “We are sending the wrong message to our children about carrying guns.”

Those words ricocheted on Williamson during the 2007 campaign, when Republican challenger Giles Ward of Louisville repeatedly emphasized his support for gun rights. Williamson says she has nothing against hunters or law-abiding citizens; she just didn’t like the NRA-backed legislation. Ward defeated Williamson.

Ralph Doxey of Holly Springs also is leaving the Capitol after losing an election. The burley lawmaker could be quick with a smile for friends, but he was a tough debater. Doxey was first elected as a Democrat, but switched to the Republican Party. The jump proved to be a tactical mistake in his populist district. Doxey lost to Democrat Bill Stone of Ashland.

Travis Little of Corinth, who has been the Senate president pro tempore the past eight years, chose not to seek re-election in 2007. Little also changed from Democrat to Republican, but his switch didn’t seem to hurt, as he was re-elected four years ago under the GOP banner. As the Senate’s second-in-command, Little was frequently at the microphone to talk about bills.

Little’s successor in the north Mississippi district is Democrat Eric Powell of Corinth. And, Bryant is asking senators to elevate Gulfport Republican Billy Hewes III to the post of president pro tem — a move that would give Hewes an important role in shaping policies that affect every Mississippian.