Barbour offers students a realistic explanation of legislative gridlock

Published 10:30 am Wednesday, February 15, 2017

By Sid Salter

Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour — never known for mincing words or soft-soaping his opinions especially about partisan politics — on Monday offered a group of about 400 Mississippi State University students some serious enlightenment about partisan politics and legislative gridlock as it exists today in Washington and in Jackson.

Barbour, now 69, remains affable and self-effacing. He still works a room like a politician. He is generous with praise, particularly with students. But age is catching up with the Yazoo City native and he looks the part of the doting grandfather of six.

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After serving as governor from 2004-2012, Barbour returned to Washington to the BGR Group lobbying firm he founded with partners Ed Rogers and Lanny Griffith in 1991-92. The former Republican National Committee chairman (1993-97) and two-term chair of the Republican Governors Association eased back into his role as a lobbyist with the ease of a Mississippi Delta country lawyer slipping on a well-worn seersucker suit.

Barbour visited MSU this week as part of the Lamar Conerly Governance Lecture Series, but Barbour has had academic ties to MSU for many years. The initial Haley Barbour Scholars Program — which provides scholarships to Political Science students — was established in 1997 by Barbour’s friends and family members.

In 2014, Toyota Manufacturing Mississippi established the Toyota-Haley Barbour Scholars Program bearing the Yazoo City native’s name was designed to enable recipients to give back to area communities that serve and are served by the Blue Springs-based automobile manufacturing facility that chose to locate in Mississippi during his gubernatorial tenure.

But the focus of Barbour’s lecture on Monday was leadership in times of crisis — a topic that many Mississippians believe Barbour exemplified during the penultimate challenge of his service has governor. Barbour shepherded Mississippi through Hurricane Katrina in 2005 in a way that truly only he could. Mississippi was flattened by a natural disaster that was truly the worst in American history.

The state needed federal disaster assistance in an unprecedented scope. Even with Republican Mississippi U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in a position of great influence on Capitol Hill, the state needed the skills of a master lobbyist to navigate the post-Katrina era. Barbour was the right man in the right place at the right time for Mississippi.

The majority of Mississippians — a majority that twice elected Barbour governor — believed themselves fortunate in the extreme to have had Barbour as governor after Hurricane Katrina. Barbour knew where the spigots were in Washington to turn on the federal dollars and knew how to turn them on fast and to get the maximum amount of money possible headed to Mississippi.

In his lecture to MSU students, Barbour recounted the lessons he said he learned about leadership after Katrina.

“Good leaders understand if you expect somebody to be responsible for something, you have to give them the authority to get done what it takes to achieve the responsibility,” said Barbour. “You’ve got to accept responsibility when things go wrong, even if it’s not your fault. If you are the leader, you’ve got to step up to the plate.”

Then Barbour talked about the nation’s current political climate.

“About 350 of the seats in the U.S. House aren’t contested from a partisan standpoint,” said Barbour. “So candidates are concerned about appealing to the middle. They are concerned about getting beat in the primaries. So, Republicans now run to keep anyone from getting to the right of them and Democrats run to keep anyone from getting to the left of them — and we’ve kind of hollowed out the middle.”

If there is a better and more factual explanation of modern legislative gridlock — a political reality in which there is little if any room left for compromise between Republicans and Democrats or the right and the left, I haven’t heard it.

While absolutely true in Washington, Barbour’s partisan scenario isn’t foreign to Jackson, either. Increasingly, legislative districts are rigid and primaries matter far more than the general election — which goes a long way toward explaining the seeming inability of lawmakers to reach consensus on issues that seem at first blush to be political no-brainers.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at