by Alan Lange
as featured in the Metro Business Chronicle

One of the most interesting races of the 2007 election cycle will be the House District 66 race here in Jackson. This is not just because it will involve lots of dollars and will be in the state’s only major media market. The winner of this race could well indicate who has control of the Mississippi House of Representatives.

Cecil Brown
Brown is the steady-CPA-“financial-type” who was elected to House District 66 in 2000 running as a Democrat. He is a partner at the boutique money management firm Medley and Brown in Jackson. Brown served as former Governor Ray Mabus’s Chief of Staff in the early 1990s and had a stint at as the State’s Chief Fiscal Officer after that.

After being elected in 2000, he was on the only freshman Representative to be appointed to the Appropriations Committee by then-Speaker Tim Ford. Hitching his wagon to Billy McCoy, Brown quickly rose through the ranks and wound up as the Chairman of the powerful Education Committee, where over half of Mississippi’s budget is spent.

Many believed that Brown would challenge Republican State Treasurer Tate Reeves in this election. Truthfully, Brown was the Democrats only chance to field a candidate that would even be considered viable, but Cecil never committed to that race, opting instead to try and keep the legislative seat he had. That was certainly a more prudent decision as Reeves would have likely prevailed easily in a statewide race.

Brown is largely viewed as a carrying a big legislative stick. He has his name on lots of legislation and his participation on a bill is largely viewed as a litmus test for support from House Speaker Billy McCoy.

Cory Wilson
Wilson is the neighborhood activist/Fondren resident that is challenging for this seat as a Republican. He is a litigation defense partner for the prestigious regional law firm of Bradley, Arant, Rose & White in Jackson. He is just coming off a White House Fellowship where he spent a year with other Fellows traveling the world learning about policy and serving in the Department of Defense.

In a very short time, Wilson has amassed an impressive political support system. With Leland Speed as his Campaign Chairman and Billy Mounger, Bill Lampton and former Ambassador John Palmer as his Finance Co-Chairs, Wilson will be a very well funded challenger. He has even had a fundraiser featuring Congressman Chip Pickering and Senator Trent Lott as Honorary Co-Chairs.

The Race
Election year politics have already warmed this race up. Wilson entered the race shortly after Brown led the “Democratic Response” to Haley Barbour’s State of the State speech. Brown also helped Billy McCoy pick a fight with Barbour early in the legislative session by trying to “hotbox” the MAEP bill on the second day of the legislative session – even before the state’s budget forecast was prepared. With that and Brown’s strident opposition to Barbour on the “Tax Swap” legislation and other key issues has put Brown directly in opposition to Barbour and other conservative legislators.

BIPEC (the Business and Industry Political Educational Committee) rates legislators on a scale from 1-100 to rate their “business friendliness”. In 2003, BIPEC supported Brown against his Democratic primary challenger, trial lawyer Chris Klotz. Notably, Brown had no general election opponent that year and enjoyed crossover support from Republicans in his primary fight. Even with Brown carrying a decent BIPEC rating, BIPEC endorsed Wilson for the House 66 race (one of only four challengers for House seats they picked). With Wilson’s strength of support among traditional Northeast Jackson conservatives, much of the crossover support Brown has historically enjoyed will likely disappear with a real Republican option.

The value of incumbency is an obvious advantage for Brown, and Wilson will need help from dynamics at the top of the ticket to unseat him. In 2003, when Barbour was elected, the same District 66 voters that voted him in voted for Haley Barbour by 53%. The race may well become a direct proxy for voters to choose between Billy McCoy and Haley Barbour. Should Barbour drag over 60% support for himself in that district, that may drive enough momentum to get Wilson to victory.

Brown does have a primary challenger in Stacey Webb, and the Charlie Ross/Phil Bryant race might drag some votes away that he might otherwise get in a primary. Brown should survive that primary. However, Wilson will be a true fight for Brown. Even if both candidates run perfect campaigns, the winner may be the one that the overall political tide carries to victory. With the Senate firmly in Republican control, and the House within a few seats of “conservative” control, this legislative race may well be the one to watch.