Mississippians continue to shelter-in-place as health professionals and government leaders try to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and his wife are no different.
“If I had been isolated in Washington in a one bedroom apartment without my wife I’d have been a basketcase,” Lott joked as he spoke exclusively to Y’all Politics.
The couple is at home in Jackson trying to make the best of their time together but apart from the rest of society. He is working from home, joining conference calls for a few hours a day, and then doing yard work, bush-hogging and weed eating.
Lott was in Kansas for a speaking engagement with his business partner, former Louisiana U.S. Senator John Breaux, as the pandemic response began to shut down much of the economy and restrictions on travel were being implemented. He is thankful he made it back home to Mississippi, and he is even more thankful that he decided to step out of the politically spotlight when he did.
“I thank the Good Lord that I had enough sense after thirty-five years to know it was time to retire when I did,” Lott said. “The people of Mississippi were very good to me but there comes a point when you need to pass the baton on.”
Lott was a mainstay in Mississippi politics for nearly 40 years, beginning as an assistant to then-Congressman William Colmer in 1968, winning that same South Mississippi seat in 1972, and moving to the U.S. Senate in 1989. He rose to become the Senate Majority Leader in 1996, besting fellow Mississippian, senior Senator Thad Cochran, for the top spot.
He resigned as Mississippi’s junior senator in 2007, having served in elective office at the highest levels in government for 35 years.
Lott, now 78 years old, says the reluctance of some in Congress to step aside is causing issues in getting the people’s work done on Capitol Hill.
“One of the problems now in Washington is that people my age or older are still trying to run things. They need to know when to quit,” Lott said. “Nancy Pelosi is older than I am. Chuck Schumer’s almost my age. Mitch McConnell’s a little older than I am. It really bothers me that they can’t find a way to work together a little bit better.”
The former Senator recalls days gone by when there was a different tone in Washington, when hyper-partisanship was the exception instead of the norm. He recalled a recent phone call with former President Bush where the two discussed the shift in tenor in the nation’s politics.
“I talked to former President George W. Bush yesterday. I had reached out just to see how he and Laura were doing. He called back and said that he still talks to Clinton. They quite often reminisce about what it used to be like,” Lott noted. “Even Bush said, ‘What do you think the difference is?’ I said, “Well, you know, Mr. President, first of all there were different people there in the 90s at the turn of the century. Secondly, the media is very different now. Then there was just TV and radio and newspapers. Now we got social media. Times are different and you have to come to terms with that.”
As Senate Majority Leader, Lott, a Republican, sought to build a real relationship with his Democrat counterpart, Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, as not only a colleague representing his constituents but also on social terms where respect could be fostered between the two. He still calls Daschle “a really nice guy.”
“I tried not to take advantage of having the majority and he was considerate of the needs we had, and we are very good friends to this day,” Lott said.
Lott understands the dynamic between the two leaders in the U.S. Senate today is nowhere near where his was with Daschle, and that it is engrained in who they are and where they are from. Yet, still he says they must stop trying to box each other in and sit down to get the job done.
“I would say to Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer,” Lott begins. “I mean, it’s hard for them to get together because one of them is a real conservative from Kentucky and the other one is a real liberal from New York City. But they need to put their prejudices and preferences aside and sit down and do what’s right for the country. Most of the leadership is doing everything they can but I’ve been greatly disappointed in the Congress. They’ve done some things that needed to be done but it has not been pretty, to say the least.”
Over his 35 years in elected office, Lott experienced a number of natural and economic disasters that shook Mississippi and the nation. From recessions to Presidential impeachments to Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, Lott calls this coronavirus pandemic “the greatest challenge I have ever seen,” saying nothing during his tenure compares to this.
With that in mind, Lott says as he looks at the government’s response, he is weary of people in the media second guessing and criticizing every leader or either party no matter what they do.
In Mississippi, Governor Tate Reeves has been in office just over 90 days. Lott says he’s doing just fine so far.
“I think Tate has done OK. He, like the President, is facing tough decisions. All the Governors are but I think that he has followed the model of other Governors and direction that the President has suggested,” Lott said. “And of course his problems have been exacerbated by a terrible series of tornadoes and the loss of lives, so you have the need to help those people recover and get disaster assistance to the counties. He’s really got a lot on his plate right now.”
All of the criticism and negativity he sees and reads about elected leaders reminds him of a quip former President Ronald Reagan once told him.
“One thing I loved about Ronald Reagan, he always saw something positive in even the most negative situation,” Lott recalled. “He told my favorite story about how you open the door and you look in and there’s a room full of horse manure. You don’t focus on the manure; you just know there’s a pony in there somewhere. I believe in trying to be positive, optimistic.”
But Lott says, while has a degree of sympathy for them, he is frustrated with Congress and the way they are doing business, or rather not doing business.
“I’m more frustrated with the Congress but again, I have some degree of sympathy for them, too,” Lott said. “They need to act. They’re not there.”
The economy in Mississippi and across America has taken a nosedive during this time of social distancing and shelter-in-place orders. Unemployment is at record highs, both in the state and across the nation. Some 130,000 Mississippians are included in the 22 million Americans who have filed for unemployment assistance in just four weeks. Lott says he is worried about the long term economic impact but he also believes in the American spirit.
“I do worry about the long term economic impact. I still think that once we get a vaccine and people can get vaccinated against this virus and we begin to open back up and get things going that America, our enterprise system is so strong, it will come back strong,” Lott said. “But will it come back as strong as we would need for it to and how long will that take? There’s just so many questions there that are hard to answer.”
One area he thinks that must be addressed now is the Paycheck Protection Program. Congressional Democrats are resisting President Donald Trump’s calls to provide more funding for the small business assistance program.
“I think that the Congress needs to quit taking opposing positions or trying to get the drop on the other one,” Lott said. “They need to go ahead and pass more funding for this Payroll Protection Program, and find a way to work together while we’re dealing with this unbelievable pandemic.”
As far as when the right time may be to reopen the economy and get people back to work, Lott says, “the sooner, the better,” as economic hardships on families and communities are equally as fatal but he does understand the cautiousness of state and federal leaders.
“You have to rely on the advice and counsel of experts and scientists but sometimes even they are struggling for the answers that we need,” Lott said. “We can’t keep quarantining and we can’t continue to keep people away from work because it’s a different kind of slow death compared to the virus. The leadership just has to be careful and it’s going to take time to recover economically from what we are dealing with.”
As for the effects of the pandemic on the 2020 elections, Lott says the first question is how we are going to do the election, saying emphatically that he does not support expanding mail-in voting as is being suggested on Capitol Hill by Democrats.
“Are we going to be out of this enough that we will be able to go to regular polling places,” Lott said. “I have always had great concerns about mail-in voting. It’s just too easy to abuse that. I think one of the great blessings that we have as Americans is the right to vote, show up and vote but we need to make it accessible to everybody as much as we can.”
Republicans are trying to retain the White House and the majority in the U.S. Senate while regaining the majority in the U.S. House after losing control in the 2018 midterm elections. Democrats gained 41 seats two years ago, the largest gain in over 40 years.
Lott says it is impossible to say what the effect will be on the 2020 Presidential election as it likely will depend on how the current and hopeful leaders handle this crisis going forward. But he does think Republicans can maintain a slim majority in the Senate.
“I think, as I look at the numbers, the Senate will probably stay Republican, although I would not be surprised to see Republicans lose a seat or two,” Lott said. “It will be a razor thin majority. The House, it’s hard to tell. Republicans may pick up some seats but will they get the necessary net gain that they would have to have? I just don’t think we know yet how this is going to play out.”
Since leaving office, the former Senator has not been a big player in campaigns saying, “I had my turn and I try not to overplay my hand politically.” But that does not mean he is not involved. He has a preference on who is working for Mississippi’s interests in D.C., namely in the Senate.
“I’m for Cindy Hyde-Smith. I have contributed to her campaign and I think she’s in a position to do some good things for Mississippi,” Lott said. “She was able to retain most of Senator Cochran’s powerful seats, like the one on Appropriations. We need that, and she’s been helpful to the state.”
Lott says Hyde-Smith has been instrumental in securing funding for the state’s contractors, such as Raytheon and coast shipyards, providing needed job in Mississippi. He knows well what that means for the state’s workforce, having lived in Pascagoula, home to Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding, the state’ largest private employer.
“She understands how important the shipyard is to Mississippi’s employment numbers,” Lott said. “So I will be supporting her.”
He also says he is supporting the state’s current Republican House delegation, noting, “I am certainly fond of Palazzo and Trent Kelly in North Mississippi.”
Going forward, Lott says it is important that Mississippians lean forward during this time, and focus on how to get jobs and infrastructure where it must be to bring the economy back.
The President is pushing an infrastructure package in Congress, and the state has to take full advantage of that as it develops. He says that is the key for Mississippi now.
“I would urge our Governor and our Congressional delegation to always be looking to bring industries and business and jobs to the state,” Lott said, mentioning the efforts made during his terms to bring in Nissan, Toyota and other large employers. “You’re not going to bring in business and industry unless you have good education systems, you have a good infrastructure and transportation system.”
“The solution to all of our needs in Mississippi is jobs. I would urge our leaders to always be thinking about that, and support the industry we have,” Lott concluded.