Neshoba Fair helps shape 2011 politics

Published 1:58 pm Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Anyone who’s running or thinking about running for statewide office in 2011 will be at the Neshoba County Fair in 2010. It is one of the very few command performances in Mississippi politics.

For generations, politicians — those running, the wannabes and the fence-sitters — have trekked to the red clays hills south of Philadelphia to soak in the atmosphere, sweat with the locals, play with the kids and hobnob with folks.

The Fair takes place each July or August, at the height of summer. This year, it’s July 23-30, with political speeches on the 21st and 22nd.

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“Though the Fair is still a county fair, cabin owners and fairgoers come from all over the state and take their intel back to all parts of the state,” said Andy Taggart, an attorney and longtime Republican Party insider. “The cross-pollination that happens as a result can catapult a candidate onto the political radar screen as little else can.”

Statewide election year fairs draw crowds of thousands to Founders Square at the campgrounds. Cabins are not only an oasis of lavish, hefty portions of black-eyed peas, slaw and fried chicken but also centers of political gossip.

“Campaigns are often started and ended all in the course of a single Fair, Taggart said.

“Last year, for example, the rumor abounded that Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. was gearing up to run for governor. Then, that rumor died out as quickly as it started. And I don’t think Chief Waller had anything to do with starting it; those things just happen.”

Actually, speculation about Waller continues. He told The Associated Press this past week, “My plans are right now to serve as chief justice.”

Jere Nash, a longtime Democratic consultant who has co-authored two books about Mississippi politics with Taggart, said there is still much to be learned from listening to the speeches.

“Folks like us who do campaigns always pay close attention to the speeches to try and detect themes and issues that a particular candidate might be thinking about incorporating into a campaign,” Nash said.

“Most of the time, the speeches are boilerplate and are quickly forgotten,” he said. “But sometimes the speeches hint at future campaign themes or hint at ways one candidate might be thinking about differentiating himself from his opponents.”

Taggart said anyone going to fair to float political balloons needs to keep some perspective.

“Prospective candidates can read the encouragement of political insiders at the Fair — and the fact that they might be known or recognized by political insiders — as an indication that they should run for statewide office. That’s a pretty thin platform to build from,” Taggart said.

Politicking at the 2010 Fair takes on an added dimension because Republican Gov. Haley Barbour can’t run in 2011 after two terms in office.

If Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant runs for governor as expected, it will be first time since 1999 for open governor and lieutenant governor’s offices to be contested in the same year.

Republican Lester Spell’s announcement last week that he will not run again for agriculture commissioner after four terms brings to three the number of statewide elected offices where no incumbent is running.

State Rep. Dannie Reed, a Republican from Ackerman, has announced he is running for Spell’s job. State Sen. Perry Lee, a Republican of Mendenhall, may be considering the race.

Two statewide officials — Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood and Republican Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney — have announced they’re seeking re-election.

Treasurer Tate Reeves and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, both Republicans, haven’t revealed their plans. But the Fair might be a good place to listen for hints.