Miss. Governor Ending Historic Tenure
By Thomas B. Edsall
Eight years later, Mississippi's first Republican governor since 1874, Kirk Fordice, one of the most blunt-spoken politicians in the nation, has secured his support among rural conservative voters. But here in the state capital, his stature has steadily diminished: Republicans and Democrats call him a bully whose actions sometimes lend themselves to ridicule.
"He could have been Mississippi's Ronald Reagan. Instead, he has been a governor who has left a lot of good ideas on the table, unenacted," said Republican state Rep. Ken Stribling. "When people talk to him, he gives them the verbal equivalent of the middle finger. That's legislators, Republicans, blacks, whites, Democrats, independents, you name it. He's an equal opportunity antagonizer."
Fordice's bulldog style has not hurt him on Election Day. He beat two rising stars of the Democratic Party, former governor Ray Mabus, in 1991, and former secretary of state Dick Molpus, in 1995.
And Fordice has adopted an aggressively pro-business set of executive policies that have allowed Mississippi to join in the regional and national economic boom, a process that often has eluded the state in the past. Poverty remains ingrained, but such high-tech corporations as MCI-Worldcom and Skypage companies not immediately associated with Mississippi have their headquarters here.
At the same time, however, Fordice has failed to become a prime mover in the Republican realignment of the South. Instead, he will end his career as governor state law prohibits more than two consecutive four-year terms leaving behind a stalled Republican revolution. The Democrats are favored to retake the governorship this November, and their control of the legislature remains absolute: 83 to 36 Republicans in the House, 34 to 18 in the state Senate. Democrats picked up a U.S. House seat in 1998.
Fordice's tenure has been dominated by controversial escapades, a record of legislative failure, mounting racial animosity and his emergence as a politician scarred by the contradiction between his Christian rhetoric and personal behavior.
A vocal proponent of Christian virtue, he has overseen the explosive growth of casino gambling, denounced as an evil by the religious right, and the taxes from the gaming industry have kept state budgets well out of the red.
His relations with the state's black population have been consistently hostile. When he announced his decision to oppose a plan to set aside $4 million in state construction spending for minority contracts, he pointedly wore a tie featuring a Confederate flag. When the Supreme Court took under consideration an order to further integrate the state's colleges, Fordice warned that he might call out the National Guard, reviving memories of southern governors in the 1960s blocking black students' access to white schools.
He has turned his marriage of 42 years into the subject of constant speculation, provoking open discussion of his relationship with a mysterious woman in Memphis. He will undoubtedly be remembered for the public ups and downs of his marriage.
On April 8, 1993, Fordice converted what had been a matter of private gossip into the most-talked-about story in the state: "I regret to announce that Mrs. Fordice and I are enduring irreconcilable marital difference," he declared on official stationery.
The next day, on her official stationery, Pat Fordice countered that divorce "is his idea and not mine. . . . "He could have been Mississippi's Ronald Reagan. Instead, he has been a governor who has left a lot of good ideas on the table, unenacted."
a GOP state representative
[I] will proudly continue serving as First Lady unless forced from the position."
Four days later, on April 13, the couple issued a "joint statement" under the governor's letterhead declaring, "Mrs. Fordice and I are working very hard to strengthen our marriage."
The saga of Fordice's love life did not, however, end there. On Nov. 5, 1996, he was returning alone from Memphis in his Jeep Grand Cherokee when it veered off Interstate 55, sideswiped two trees, flew airborne for 44 feet, landed nose down and flipped end over end.
As Fordice slowly recuperated in the hospital over the next 24 days, reporters began to inquire about the trip. "Memphis tongues wag over Fordice wreck," the Clarion-Ledger headlined its report on Nov. 15, noting that Fordice lunched for three hours on the day of his accident at a Memphis restaurant with a mysterious "middle-aged woman."
At his first news conference after the accident, Fordice declared that he had no memory of the day of his accident. "When I tell you I have no memory of what happened on November the 5th, I mean I have absolutely no memory." He has not budged from his claim of amnesia.
In private, Republican colleagues of Fordice's joke that the governor's amnesia must have kicked in full force last August, when Fordice called on President Clinton to resign in the wake of the president's acknowledgment of an inappropriate relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky.
"We all know he's a liar," Fordice declared, in a tactic that only re- opened the history of his own accident.
"There are sweeping similarities between the position Clinton took . . . and that taken by Fordice when he faced the Mississippi press following his 1996 accident," wrote Sid Salter, editor of the Scott County Times. "If we are now into full disclosure, it is certainly time for Kirk Fordice to come clean," wrote columnist Bill Minor.
"We had to rein him in," a Republican said of Fordice. "He was throwing dirt at Clinton, but the wind was pushing it right back in his face."
Reining in their governor has become a recurrent necessity for the declining number of Republicans who remain allied with his administration. Earlier this year, Fordice created a moment of acute embarrassment at an annual party at the mansion for Republican legislators when he insisted on reading aloud the roll call of GOP members who voted to override his vetoes, suggesting, as family members watched painfully, that these dissidents were unfit for the GOP.
Most recently, Fordice brought his relations with legislators to a new low when, in his final State of the State address, he suggested that the legislature was dangerously similar to the now-defunct Soviet Union, and "there is yet room in the garbage dump of history if we are determined to share its philosophy and its fate."
Fordice's 25-minute address was met with an unprecedented silence at the historically celebratory event, as House and Senate members either seethed in their seats or pointedly paid no attention, popping candy and letting their eyes wander as Fordice plowed through his speech.
As the 1999 gubernatorial election approaches, Democratic Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove is the odds-on favorite, and none of the crop of Republicans seeking the GOP nomination fits the Fordice mold. All of them, including Musgrove, lack the governor's outspoken volatility.
"What happened is, we elected a pro-business redneck back in 1991, and that was just perfect back then," one Republican strategist said. In the meantime, he noted, "we have been moving at the speed of light into the 20th century," and the time for a bombastic politician in the Fordice tradition may have passed. "God forbid, but it might be time for Mississippi to go blow-dry," the strategist said, referring to the more finely coiffed among politicians. "We'd only be about 20 years behind South Carolina."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company