Gizzi on Politics

Who After Wicker?

Two weeks ago, Mississippi Republicans were starting to accept the fact that, with the resignation of Sen. Trent Lott (R.-Miss.) and his replacement by GOP Rep. Roger Wicker, the Magnolia State had its first new U.S. senator in 20 years. Now, the next major political question is what will happen in the lst District that Wicker has held since 1994, which is best-known nationally for including Tupelo, Elvis Presley’s hometown.

Under state election law, the governor sets the date of the special election within 60 days of the seat’s being vacated by Wicker. The actual election must be held within 60 days. As in Louisiana, all candidates appear on the same ballot regardless of party. If no one wins an absolute majority, the top two vote-getters go into a run-off.

As these details remained to be settled, most of the political talk in the district concerned Glenn McCullough, former mayor of Tupelo and former board member of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Now, McCullough is considered the best-connected Republican districtwide and the one with the greatest ability to raise significant money.

The potentially strongest GOP rival to McCullough is Greg Davis, mayor of Southaven and a former state legislator. A third strong Republican possibility is State Sen. Alan Nunnelee, also of Tupelo. However, Nunnelee is thought to be Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant’s choice for chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee and, if tapped for that post, will in all likelihood not run for Congress.

Any Republican candidate is expected to be cut from the same philosophical cloth as Wicker (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 92%).

Democrats have not made serious runs in this district since Wicker first won it back in 1994. However, they are very likely to do so this time, given their history of doing well in special elections with low turnouts. Among the heavyweight Democrats being mentioned for the 1st are State House Public Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland and former State Rep. Jamie Franks, the just-defeated Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor.

The last three times there have been special elections to fill vacancies in Congress in Mississippi — 1981, 1989 and 1993 — the winners have been Democrats, twice in districts that had previously had Republican congressmen.

Death of an Activist

Aug. 25, 1995: “Go, Pat, Go! Go, Pat, Go!” an enthusiastic band of young supporters of Pat Buchanan for President were chanting at Presidency III, a Florida Republican Party event that featured a straw vote for President. Suddenly, a tall man with silver hair and a booming voice joined the younger “Buchanan Brigades” and said: “Stop saying ‘Go.’ We don’t want Pat to go anywhere. We want him to win!” He then led the young group in a new chant: “Win, Pat, Win! Win, Pat, Win!”

That was Fred Guardabassi as I saw and knew him. A product of Eastern schools and highly successful investor and yachtsman, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., resident remained a grass-roots conservative who never behaved as if he were too important to mix it up with younger activists and do the “grunt work” for candidates and causes in which he believed. When he died December 30 at age 78 following a stroke, Guardabassi was remembered universally as one who gave much of his time and fortune to the modern conservative movement.

The son of a diplomat, Guardabassi spent a good part of his youth in Rome. There, he became fluent in four languages, attended school with Benito Mussolini’s son Romano, saw Adolf Hitler at the opera one evening and had an audience with Pope Pius XII.  

After graduation from Harvard and a stint in the U.S. Army as an intelligence officer with NATO, Guardabassi went into business in Massachusetts. Active in Republican politics, starting with serving as a sergeant-at-arms at the 1962 Republican state convention (where he backed conservative state legislator Phil Graham for governor over fellow Italian-American John Volpe), Guardabassi was also one of just a handful of Massachusetts Republicans to back Barry Goldwater for President two years later.

Explaining that “Massachusetts is a very difficult state to live in for a conservative,” Guardabassi moved to Flordia in 1965. He became one of the earliest backers of Ronald Reagan for President in 1976. In both ’76 and ’80, Guardabassi chaired the Californian’s campaign in South Florida. Reagan named his Florida friend an ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Guardabassi was a major donor to conservative organizations nationwide, notably the Heritage Foundation in Washington, which has a chair in journalism named for Guardabassi and his first wife Marilyn, who died in 2002. He also contributed to the Freedom Alliance, Conservative Victory Fund, Young Americans for Freedom and the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute and the Leadership Institute. Guardabassi was also generous in his personal charity, and at his memorial service, it was revealed that he had privately anonymously paid for the education of the daughter of a friend.

Guardabassi became less active in politics after Reagan left the White House, although he unfailingly donated to conservative causes, participated in conservative events (he came to Washington with his wife for the banquet celebrating the 50th anniversary of Human Events) and wrote many letters to the editors of local newspapers.

With his passing, the conservative movement lost a vigorous, generous supporter, and I lost a longtime friend.

Close in Colorado: When Republican Sen. Wayne Allard announced he was honoring his term-limit pledge and not running again in ’08, Centennial State Democrats gleefully chortled and saw a net gain in the works. After all, they had won the state’s other Senate seat in ’04 and then the governorship in ’06.

But last week, the Democrats’ gaining Allard’s seat seemed less certain. According to a Rasmussen statewide poll, the apparent Democratic nominee, Rep. Mark Udall, is tied among likely Colorado voters with the unofficial Republican nominee, former Rep. (1996-2002) Bob Schaffer, with each candidate getting 41% of the vote. Their contest is considered a classic ideological showdown, as Udall (lifetime ACU rating: 8%) is a committed arch-liberal in the mold of his father, late Arizona Rep. (1961-89) Morris Udall, and Schaffer is an unabashed conservative (lifetime ACU rating: 99%).

The ‘Grandfather Clause:’ Waiting for my return flight from Des Moines International Airport following the Iowa caucuses January 3, I talked for some time to Hawkeye State Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley. As the conversation turned to families, Grassley told me that one of his nine grandchildren, 22-year-old Patrick Grassley, was elected last fall to the state house of representatives from New Hartford, Iowa. “And that’s the very same seat I won back in 1958,” he beamed.

Patrick Grassley was probably unique among all legislative candidates in Iowa or even nationwide in that his campaign coffers boasted major donations from New York GOP Gov. George Pataki, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R.-Neb.) and Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana.

Vice President Norris?

Following  Mike Huckabee’s victory statement  at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Des Moines January 3, my colleague Jamie Coomarasamy of the BBC briefly cornered Huckabee’s best-known campaign cheerleader — Chuck Norris, famed internationally as the star of TV’s “Walker, Texas Ranger.”

“Well, will it be Vice President Norris?” Coomarasamey asked him.

“No,” replied Norris, a black belt in karate, “I’m not tough enough for politics.”