Women hitting political glass ceiling in state

Published 12:19 am Sunday, December 16, 2007

Mississippi shares the dubious distinction with Iowa of never sending a woman to Congress or electing one as governor — something outgoing Republican Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck could possibly have changed.

Mississippi will have two vacancies in Congress now that powerful U.S. Sen. Trent Lott and U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering, both Republicans, have decided to give up their seats. But Tuck, only the second woman to be elected to lieutenant governor and the first to serve back-to-back terms, has taken another road. She’s leaving the political scene, at least for a while, to work at her alma mater Mississippi State University.

There doesn’t appear to be another woman on the horizon to step onto the political trail forged by Tuck and Evelyn Gandy, who served as Mississippi’s first female lieutenant governor from 1976-80 and the first woman elected to statewide office.

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Mississippi’s political landscape is dominated by white men. No black has ever been elected to statewide office and only 24 women served in this year’s 174-member Legislature. The state ranks in the bottom 10 nationally for women in the Legislature.

“Mississippi loses out on a lot of talent by just restricting itself to white males,” said Marty Wiseman, director of MSU’s Stennis Institute of Government.

Having no women serve in congressional or gubernatorial posts is where the political gender similarities end for Mississippi and Iowa. The midwestern state has elected several women to statewide offices, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Next month in Iowa, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton hopes to emerge as the Democratic front-runner in the state’s caucus.

“Iowa’s political culture is more populous and open to newcomers participating,” Walsh said.

Conversely, Mississippi and other southern states have a “politically conservative culture and it has been harder for women to break into that system,” Walsh said.

Walsh said Tuck’s resume — she’s a lawyer who served in the state Senate — put her on a trajectory that could lead to Congress or the Governor’s Mansion.

Tuck won’t elaborate on her decision to become special assistant to MSU president Robert “Doc” Fogelsong. Her salary will be $160,000 annually — more than twice what she made in the second-highest elective office in the state.

The 44-year-old has said she will not run for the congressional seats being vacated by Lott and Pickering. Only men’s names have been bandied as serious contenders for the posts.

Tuck receives mixed reviews on her performance over eight years in office as she presided over the Senate.

“As far as I can tell, she left no footprints or fingerprints. She sort of ran the shop. She was not a policy woman,” said Joseph Parker, a political scientist at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Wiseman, who is Tuck’s former instructor and a close friend, said the lieutenant governor’s legacy began before she won the office. He said as a senator Tuck pushed a bill that overhauled thousands of bridges in disrepair and helped cement her career.

“It established her as a champion of sorts for rural government. She became known as a modern day populist who could get things done. She was still in her 20s when that happened,” Wiseman said.

Also, Tuck’s refusal to fall in line with Republican Gov. Haley Barbour’s opposition to a proposed tax swap bill showed the GOP that she was an independent thinker, Wiseman said.

The bill would have lowered the 7 percent sales tax on grocery — the highest in the nation — and raised the excise tax on cigarettes, which is among the lowest in the country. Tuck supported the bill, but it failed in 2006 and 2007.

Tuck’s party switch from Democratic to Republican during her first term embittered some of her earlier supporters. She also was criticized for not divulging that she had received $510,000 in loans from trial lawyer Richard “Dickie” Scruggs for her 1999 campaign. The money was repaid.

Scruggs was recently indicted on charges of attempting to bribe a judge.

Still, Tuck won re-election in 2003, defeating a black female candidate. Term limits prevented her from seeking a third term. No woman sought statewide office this year.

“If they don’t offer themselves and put their names on the ballots, then they are not going to be considered,” said Appeals Court Judge Virginia Carlton, a 43-year-old former state legislator. “They’re not breaking the glass ceiling if they’re not putting themselves out there for public service.”

Carlton said Gandy and Tuck served as examples of women who were professional and tough. However, she acknowledged it can be difficult for women who enter politics, adding that her 2006 run for Appeals Court was supported by Barbour.

The parties also have to be more welcoming, said Walsh.

“If there are open seats, and before the ink is dry in the newspaper, the party leadership has picked someone that looks like them, then how do you get your foot in the door?” Walsh said.

Claude McInnis, executive vice president of the state Democratic Party, and state GOP Party chairman Jim Herring said their parities would field women for some offices, but they wouldn’t identify the potential candidates or the offices.