PERRY/Stories from Simpson
Wednesday, March 27, 2013 1:00 AM
A great and humorous political novel just begs to be released from Simpson County, Mississippi. One day it will be on paper, but currently it resides in the head of former Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Brad White. White, whose upcoming annual family crawfish will attract statewide political officials, spins stories of the famous, infamous and insane from Simpson County. Whether on a porch at the Neshoba County Fair or a table at Jackson's Hal & Mals, when politicos gather with White one is sure to say, "Brad, tell them the one about...."
White, who formerly served as county Republican chairman, transitioned partisan politics in the rural communities just south of Rankin County from some of the earliest founders of Republicanism in Mississippi into today's conservative coalition including former old line Democrats. I've written about Simpson County over the years as a political microcosm of the transformations going on around the state: a growing Republican primary, elected Democrats switching to the GOP and fighting on the margins to control the majority on county boards. While Republicans and White replicated this model across the state, there is something especially Southern and unique about Simpson County that creates characters worthy of story and politics worthy of wonder.
Perhaps voters truly select people representative of themselves: some statesmen, others scoundrels, and some eccentric. Two of the most honorable men I know in the Mississippi legislature come from Simpson County: state Senator Perry Lee and Representative Andy Gipson. D'Lo Mayor John Henry Berry has never met a stranger and greets everyone as a friend and his campaign for reelection might be worthy of reality television. And for the scoundrels, I won't name them, but I've been amazed at the news coming out of Simpson of late - enough to keep my good friend Pat Brown at the Simpson County News and Magee Courier quite busy.
The most recent - and tragic - came Sunday with reports that state Rep. Jessica Upshaw of Diamondhead was found dead, reportedly of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, at the home of former state Rep. Clint Rotenberry of Mendenhall. The death continues to be investigated and sent shock waves through the legislature and among Capitol observers.
But in other and unrelated news, the former Mendenhall Police Chief, Bruce Barlow, was arrested earlier this month and has pleaded not guilty to eight federal counts including extortion. The FBI alleges Barlow would arrest people and demand compensation for their release. Now the Mississippi Supreme Court has ordered the suspension of Mendenhall municipal Judge Bruce Smith over allegations he dismissed charges in exchange for contributions to a fund managed by Barlow. Barlow had previously been arrested for disorderly contact (accused of making a sexually obscene gesture toward a family) which got him fired as chief. (A few years ago another prior chief of police in Mendenhall was arrested on four counts of sexual battery.)
Last month, Simpson County Justice Court Judge Ted Blakeney was arrested on a littering charge. Surely there is more to that story.
Over the years I've covered in this column a number of stories from Simpson including a resident involved in a criminal conspiracy to invade and overthrow the island nation of Dominica in 1981.
Less exotic were the actions of Judge Larry Buffington who one year ran for re-election as Chancery Judge while seeking election to the Court of Appeals on the same ballot. Buffington grabbed subsequent attention issuing what he admitted were improper subpoenas ordering supervisors to appear before him to answer questions about who leaked to the media a public appointment he made. This of course garnered additional media attention, as well as a rebuke from the Mississippi Supreme Court and in 2010 Buffington was the only chancery judge in the state defeated for reelection.
But apart from the unfortunate but intriguing news that comes out of Simpson, there are many stories only Brad White can tell. His fights with yellow dog Democrats like the late Wiley Magee - five term circuit clerk and southeast director for Little People of America - can be bizarre. His memories of Sheriff Lloyd Jones (killed in the line of duty in 1995) could be a "Walking Tall" movie. There are stories of the undead, overdosed dogs, an Indian-Viking princess, a prisoner hijacking a school sporting broadcast, goats in churches, funerals gone awry and all the while the other citizens of Simpson County playing it straight in the midst of the comic antics.
Then Governor Haley Barbour once said, "I don't know if Brad White's stories are true, but they ought to be."
If you see White, urge him to write his book, ask him his title, and realize he might not want to write it while many of the subjects are still living. But until he writes it, ask him to tell the one about...
Brian Perry is a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.