Mabus rebounded after ’91 loss in Miss.

Published 1:59 am Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Plenty of people wrote off Ray Mabus in 1991 when he lost his bid for a second term as Mississippi governor. The Democrat was only 43 at the time — pretty young for a has-been.

Turns out, it was a mistake for critics to declare his career over.

Mabus, who turned 61 on Sunday, has enjoyed a second and third turn on the political stage in appointed jobs that have taken him far beyond the borders of Mississippi.

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The Ackerman native and Harvard Law graduate was U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1994-96 under then-President Bill Clinton, whose time as governor of Arkansas overlapped with Mabus’ as governor of Mississippi.

Now, Mabus is secretary of the U.S. Navy, a post to which he was appointed by President Barack Obama in March and confirmed with bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate in May. Mabus was an early supporter of Obama during the 2008 presidential race.

Mabus has made several appearances the past several weeks to talk about his new job and to inspect Navy vessels being built at shipyards in Connecticut, Virginia and Mississippi.

On Friday, Mabus appeared at Jackson State University to announce that the Navy will name a supply ship for Medgar Evers, the Mississippi NAACP leader assassinated in Jackson in 1963.

Before going to Mississippi last week, Mabus was in New York to appear on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” a late-night satirical news program on cable’s Comedy Central. No doubt that Mabus — who has one daughter in college, another in high school and a stepdaughter in elementary school — earned some Cool Dad points with his easygoing demeanor and flub-free responses to a host whose quick wit sometimes leaves guests bumfuzzled.

As Navy secretary, Mabus oversees sailors and Marines. Stewart asked him which group is stronger.

“I love all my children equally,” Mabus said. “You know, you don’t go out of your way to make either Marines or sailors, which include SEALS, angry.”

Mabus praised service members as well trained, highly skilled and “incredibly patriotic.”

Stewart agreed.

“They’re tremendous ambassadors,” Stewart said. “But I remember my grandfather telling me stories about the Navy. They used to greet each other. The standard, I guess, Navy greeting — ‘How’s the syphilis?”’

Mabus laughed but, wisely, did not respond.

Mabus served in the Navy from 1970-72 as a surface warfare officer on the Newport, R.I.-based USS Little Rock. Before then, he was in Naval ROTC as an undergraduate at the University of Mississippi.

He first entered Mississippi politics in the early 1980s as a staff member for then-Gov. William Winter. Young and brash, Mabus was elected state auditor in November 1983. During four years on the job, he rooted out corruption in county government — making enemies among the courthouse crowd but grabbing headlines that helped propel him to the Governor’s Mansion in the 1987 election.

As governor, Mabus sought to follow up Winter’s biggest legislative success, the Education Reform Act of 1982, which required public school districts to offer kindergarten. Mabus’ BEST — Better Education for Success Tomorrow — was passed by the Legislature but never funded.

As the economy tanked and the state budget struggled, Mabus lost the 1991 governor’s race to Republican Kirk Fordice, a blunt-spoken Vicksburg contractor who was little known before the campaign.

For all his success in federal jobs, it’s not clear how Mabus would fare in a Mississippi election. Almost any time he’s in the news, critics still trot out the slogan that appeared on bumper stickers back in 1991: “SAVUS FROM MABUS.”