Pulling The Switch

She grew up in Mississippi's Democratic Party, but Lieutenant Governor Amy Tuck is now establishing her independence among the Republicans.

Over the years, life hasn't been too rosy for Republicans in Mississippi. While most other states developed two-party systems, plantation owners, sharecroppers, segregationists and freedom riders in the Magnolia State all inexplicably flocked to the Democratic Party. Although GOP power has grown in recent years, the pace has lagged behind that in other Southern states.

But last December, the Republican Party got some of the best news in years. At a news conference in the capitol, sitting Lieutenant Governor Amy Tuck announced that she was switching from the Democratic to the Republican Party.

The announcement, while momentous, was not entirely unexpected. Helped along by her conservative social stances and her decision not to endorse Al Gore in 2000, a rift had opened between Tuck and party leadership. When Tuck eschewed a Democratic redistricting plan, she was blamed for costing the party a congressional seat. And by the time she decided to buck party leadership and lead the fight for tort reform in Mississippi, the nail was well into the coffin.

Tuck proudly admits that she doesn't let party dictate her decisions. So when she saw the Democratic redistricting "tornado plan"--named for the shape of a district that spanned 200 miles through 16 counties-- she drew up another plan in the name of fairness. "I'm the same person today that I was before I switched," she says. "I didn't leave the party, the party left me."

By the time she announced the switch, there was no love lost between her and party leadership. At the time, the Democratic Party chairman compared her switch to "someone being terminally ill for awhile. When you finally get the call that they have passed on, there's an element of relief."

While tempers still run high among the most partisan Democrats, Tuck has considerable support with the rank and file. For one thing, because Mississippi was a one-party state for so long, party doesn't mean as much as it does in, say, Michigan. Also, as the state has gradually developed its Republican Party, residents have grown accustomed to seeing elected Democrats, from a state auditor to a lieutenant governor candidate, switch parties.

That said, two prominent Democratic challengers have signed up to face Tuck in her November reelection bid for lieutenant governor. Holding her seat will be tough, but no tougher than her previous election feats. At the age of 27, with her political experience limited to the Mississippi State University undergraduate student government, she knocked off a successful businessman to win a seat in the state Senate, becoming the youngest woman ever elected to the legislature. Facing a special election and redistricting, she then won two more elections in the next two years.

After five years in the Senate, she ran for secretary of state, losing in a very close primary election. She was then named secretary of the Senate, the body's highest administrative position. In her race four years later for lieutenant governor--arguably the state's most powerful office--she beat the favored Democratic candidate in the primary and overcame the opposition of the state teachers' union in the general election to become, at age 36, the state's only female statewide elected official.

The secret to Tuck's success is well known: her infectious personality. Tuck appeals to average folks as a "back-slapping, down- to-earth, country gal," says Mississippi State political science professor Stephen Shaffer. And within the Senate, her colleagues appreciate her humility and forthrightness. "She's very trustworthy," says state Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith. "If she tells you tomorrow's Easter, you can dye your eggs tonight."