Politics 2005: Week of September 26

Lott of Guessing

The second-biggest news story in Mississippi (after Katrina, of course) centers on veteran Republican Sen. Trent Lott’s political plans. Following the furor over remarks he made at a 100th birthday party for Sen. (1954-2002) Strom Thurmond (R.-S.C.) that led to his downfall as majority leader of the Senate, Lott (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 85%) took a new course as chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and swiftly signaled he would run for re-election in 2006.

But of late, the senator has sounded not so sure. After 16 years in the House (finishing his career there as Republican whip) and 18 years in the Senate, the 64-year-old Lott is guaranteed a lucrative career in lobbying and law should he follow the path of past Republican Senate leaders such as Bob Dole and Howard Baker. Moreover, the appeal to Lott of such a career move has been heightened because the senator’s family home in Pascagoula was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina.

There are other signs the Mississippian is ready to leave Congress. According to many readers, his just-published autobiography, Herding Cats, is, as one reviewer concluded about the memoirs of former Vice President Dan Quayle a decade ago, “the kind of book you write when you are not planning to run for anything again.” Like Quayle, Lott makes clear in his book there are other Republican officeholders with whom he is not enamored—notably President Bush and present Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.), both of whom Lott believes did nothing to help him during the Thurmond controversy.

“It’s very, very tough,” Lott told the Washington Post last week when asked what he intends to do next year.

Should the senator step down, it is taken for granted among Magnolia State Republicans that the nominee to succeed him will be five-term GOP Rep. Charles “Chip” Pickering, a one-time Lott staffer and namesake-son of the recess-appointed appellate judge who has just retired from the bench. Because of almost-certain support from Lott and the popularity the elder Pickering amassed during the Democratic-led Senate filibuster that thwarted a confirmation vote on him, the 42-year-old congressman would be the favorite for both nomination and election to an open seat.

Following 2002 redistricting that reduced Mississippi’s U.S. House delegation from five to four, Pickering (lifetime ACU rating: 95%) was forced to compete against Democratic Rep. (1998-2002) Ronnie Shows and defeated him 2-to-1.

Among Democrats, the names of possible candidates for an open Senate seat include former Gov. (1987-91) Ray Mabus, who later served as President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia; former state Atty. Gen. Mike Moore, one of the midwives of state lawsuits for health-care funds from tobacco companies; current Atty. Gen. Jim Hood; best-selling novelist John Grisham, a former liberal state legislator; and Rep. Gene Taylor (lifetime ACU rating: 69%), who has represented Lott’s former Gulf Coast House district since 1989. (Taylor, like Lott, is a Katrina victim. The hurricane washed away his home, office and pickup truck, and colleagues are now making personal donations to help Taylor get back on his feet financially.)

Democrats last elected a senator from Mississippi in 1982, when veteran Sen. (1947-88) John C. Stennis won his last term over Republican activist and future Gov. Haley Barbour. Lott, who moved up to the Senate when Stennis retired in 1988, has said he will make a decision whether to run by the end of the year.

A Ford Falls (Almost)

As he began his campaign to become Tennessee’s first-ever African-American senator, Democratic Rep. Harold Ford did not have a good week. In a special election September 13 to fill the vacancy in the state Senate created by the resignation of his uncle, John Ford, Democrats held onto the heavily Democratic seat by only 13 votes out of more than 8,600 cast. But the major news out of the 29th District (Memphis) was that the narrow winner was Ophelia Ford—Harold’s aunt and John’s sister—and an heir to the most powerful political dynasty in Memphis.

The Republican runner-up, businessman Terry Roland, is not, by any means, conceding. He has requested all ballots, machines and records be safeguarded. “For the sake of the constituents of the 29th District,” Roland told the Associated Press, “who do not want their legal votes to be wiped out by illegal votes and who are ready to enter a new era, I have no choice but to question the informal results and undertake a close examination.” The Shelby County Commission will certify a winner within a matter of days and Republican Commissioner Richard Holden indicated to reporters that state law doesn’t permit the countywide panel to delay certifying election winners.

Whether or not Roland prevails, the very thought that a member of the Ford family could come so perilously close to losing any election in Memphis is akin to one of Saddam Hussein’s sons having a close race in Baathist Iraq. John Ford was elected to the state Senate in 1974, just as brother Harold Ford, Sr. was making history with his election as the first-ever African-American congressman from the Volunteer State. John Ford resigned his Senate seat earlier this year following his indictment with four other current or former state legislators in the FBI’s “Tennessee Waltz” probe of statehouse corruption.

When Harold, Sr. stepped down in 1996, Harold, Jr. easily won his open congressional district. It has long been taken for granted by pundits and pols that with Harold, Jr. running for the U.S. Senate, another member of the Ford family (which holds numerous offices in Memphis and Shelby County) would take his House seat as if by divine right.

Now, after last week’s tight special election, it surely isn’t taken for granted as much.

Short Takes

Corrigan Off List? That’s what Republican sources in Michigan were saying, or at least hoping, last week. For months, state Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan has been boosted by many conservatives (notably Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard) for the current vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. But Water Wonderland GOP leaders privately told me it won’t happen. Were Corrigan to leave the state for the U.S. Supreme Court, Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm would then be able to fill the resulting vacancy and thus tip the balance on the seven-judge state panel from Republican to Democrat.

The Michigan Supreme Court under much-respected Chief Justice Cliff Taylor is one of the judicial panels held in highest regard by conservatives nationwide.

District Attorney for Life? As a teenager in Hyde Park, N.Y., Robert Morgenthau was frequently at the same dining table with his parents’ close friends and neighbors, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. John Kennedy, with whom he raced sailboats on Cape Cod while they were teenagers, named him U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, and he was the Democratic nominee for governor of New York against Nelson Rockefeller in 1962. Today, he is best-known as the real-life role model for the Manhattan D.A. portrayed in TV’s durable “Law & Order” series.

Two weeks ago, at age 85, Morgenthau set the scene for a historical record. By winning the Democratic primary for an unprecedented ninth term as district attorney of Manhattan, son of FDR’s secretary of the treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., defeated another liberal Democrat, former city judge Leslie Crocker Snyder, by a margin of 59%-to-41%. Ironically, Snyder herself has played a judge on “Law & Order.” Should Morgenthau serve out his ninth term, he will be 90 years old and have broken the record for tenure as Manhattan D.A. set by the legendary Frank Hogan, who held the office from 1942-74. When Hogan retired in 1974, top aide Richard Kuh succeeded him. But Morgenthau easily beat Kuh in the all-important Democratic primary—in large part because the liberal community frowned on Kuh for successfully prosecuting leftist comedian Lenny Bruce on charges of using obscenity in public.