State Senator Brice Wiggins: The Politics of Primaries vs. the Politics of Loyalty

Sen. Tommy Gollott, Republican from Biloxi, dean of the Mississippi Legislature, elder statesman of Mississippi Gulf Coast Politics and the father of Mississippi gaming, shared a story with me about how gaming came to be in Mississippi. Part politics and part policy, his story detailed final passage of the Mississippi Gaming Control Act of 1990, the law that saved the coast’s economy and was years in the making. In the only way that Senator Gollott can, he set the stage by explaining that gaming legislation had always been fought by interests from outside coastal Mississippi, usually by citing religious objections. Put another way by repeating an old yarn in Mississippi politics, no one from the Coast can ever get elected statewide because everyone else in Mississippi considers us drunkards, sinners and gamblers. (The one exception that I know of being former AG Mike Moore from Jackson County). Sen Gollott, in his own Point Cadet way, explained that despite previous attempts at passing gaming legislation, there were never quite enough votes to put it over the top. At the end of the 1990 legislative session, after many hours of “working the process” the Gaming Control Act came to the Senate floor for a vote at close to midnight. It was do or die. Tension was high and tempers were short, as they always are at the end of a session. After hours and hours of debate, Sen. Gollott had counted votes and knew he was shy by two votes. With debate ending, the final vote approaching and the legislation looking like it would fail again, a fellow Senator from north Mississippi approached Senator Gollott. “Gollott,” he said, “I have always voted against this legislation. Not smart politics back home to vote for it. But, because we’ve served together for years and because it is important to the Coast, I am going to vote for your bill.” With emphasis he added, “It’s the right thing to do.” With the Senator’s vote being made and the final vote count being read, the gavel immediately came down, the presiding officer adjourned and Senators ran out of the Capitol. Gaming, for all practical purposes, had passed in Mississippi creating a new industry and revived economy for the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Oh, by the way, Sen. Gollott was a Democrat.

What inspired me to recount this bit of history in this context? Answer: politics being on my mind and waking to read Frank Corder’s latest post in Y’all Politics. Frank, who I know well, I go to church with and whose political insights through the blog I have come to respect, innocently and correctly noted, “Wiggins is a former Taylor staffer,” in listing myself and Senator Watson as being absent from the Congressman Palazzo fundraiser invites. While I cannot speak for Senator Watson, I can speak for myself and take this opportunity, as the above story represents, to highlight the importance of loyalty and personal relationships over pure politics. I have never hidden that I worked for Congressman Taylor. In fact, I have always considered it an asset because of the skills, education and insights I gleaned from working on Capitol Hill for Congressman Taylor. In three years in serving in the Mississippi Senate, there is no doubt the knowledge and skills I gained as a legislative staffer helped me understand the nuances of the legislative process on the state level. This valuable experience would not have happened if Congressman Taylor had not first brought me on as an intern in 1993. Actually, if not for Congressman Taylor I would have never met my wife Heather as I met her in D.C. while working for him. We celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary TODAY. We have two beautiful children. When we see them we know they would not be here if we had not met while I was in D.C. working for Gene.

How did I come to work for him in 1993? Being a U.S. history major and not yet ready for law school, I wanted to go to D.C. to work for MY representative in Congress, either Congressman Taylor or Senator Trent Lott. With Senator Lott being from Pascagoula and me being from Pascagoula, Sen. Lott made the obvious sense. All Congress members utilize interns in their offices. I wrote Senator Lott requesting a chance to work in his office in some capacity. (I still have a copy somewhere I am sure). I did not receive a response. Not hearing from his office, I wrote to Congressman Taylor. I received a call from his office setting up an interview for his Gulfport office. I drove back to Pascagoula dejected as, in my twenty-two year old mind, I had totally blown the interview. I didn’t have that warm, fuzzy feeling. Ultimately, I received a phone call from Congressman Taylor’s office offering me an intern position. And at the full stipend of $500. I thought I was rich!

As an intern I did the typical intern duties that every intern on Capitol Hill has done, such as opening and cataloging constituent mail and giving tours. Jumping forward a year, without any indication of what was about to come, Congressman Taylor called me out into the hall of the Canon Office Building to talk with me. In my twenty-three year old mind, I was fired. To the contrary, with no lobbying (pardon the pun) or request on my part he offered me the position of legislative aide in his office. And no less at the whopping salary of $22,000 (all public record). I struck gold! This was my first ever full time, salaried position. For me, it was a sign of independence. I remained a legislative aid for the 4th Congressional District of Mississippi working under Congressman Taylor until returning to Mississippi in 1995 to attend law school at Mississippi College. While many make a career moving from member to member on Capitol Hill to advance their careers, I always wanted to go to law school and only wanted to work for my state and district, so that I could come back and better serve the people of the Mississippi Coast as a lawyer, legislator, or whatever my career would take me.

So, you see. I feel loyalty to Gene Taylor for many reasons. At the top of the list, he took a chance on me without knowing me, showed faith in me, trusted me to do a good job and was the first to allow me to serve the Coast. So, forgive me for not jumping on the bandwagon of fundraiser invites for political expediency. In addition, like many Coastians (and I would submit most Americans) I, with all things being equal, choose the person above anything else. Working with and being around Gene Taylor for those years, I can tell you his beliefs personally and politically were pro-life, balanced budget and strong national defense. In other words, conservative.

Whether some people like it or not, Gene is running as a Republican and has been certified as a Republican by the state GOP. Congressman Palazzo the Republican incumbent is also running. I know Congressman Palazzo and have worked with him on a number of things for the benefit of my constituents. He has always taken my calls, has always listened to my concerns and has always helped in any way he can. His PAC has also contributed to my campaign for which I am totally appreciative. There are also others running in the Republican primary for this seat, whether people and the media know their names or not. The by-laws of the Mississippi Republican Party, as many have pointed out, require neutrality in primaries. Out of respect for Congressman Palazzo, Gene Taylor and any other Republican, I have chosen to stay neutral, hence, declining to be on any invitation. It is an “inside baseball” move to line up as many elected officials as possible for invitations to let people know the breadth of support for a candidate. Not complaining; just explaining. That being said, it is impossible for any candidate to meet every single potential voter of his district in person, although you try. Thus, the necessity of invitations and other media. I will support any way I can the Republican candidate come the general election.

Many, many argue that the problem in Washington right now is that politics trumps policy; that political expediency is chosen over the policy of people. Loyalty is rare in life; even rarer in politics. It’s just the nature of the business. As Senator Gollott’s story illustrates, loyalty and relationships matter when it comes to looking out for the people. It should not be taken lightly.

In the end, there are some things that are above political expediency. Politics and politicians come and go. People and relationships can last a lifetime. This should not be taken lightly,.