During his first 18 months as governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour put together an impressive string of legislative victories. But it was his countenance and resolve after Hurricane Katrina turned 60 percent of his state into a disaster area that earned Barbour national acclaim and made him something of a hero in his home state. “He is to Katrina what Rudy Giuliani was to 9/11,” says Billy Hewes III, a Republican state senator from Gulfport.
Barbour is the first to credit the countless government workers who helped southern Mississippi cope with the storm. But a major crisis such as Katrina also demands a strong leader who can communicate calm to the public and provide “a central decision-making point for when things get balled up or go sideways, which they do,” as Barbour says. He excelled at both.
Barbour was straight with the facts about the utter devastation in the area, but his own demeanor in public appearances suggested that the state would summon the will to rebuild. Although much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast still looks as if it were hit just yesterday, the state has managed to provide temporary housing for more than 100,000 residents and helped enough employers get back in business that the affected area now is short of labor. Mississippi also reopened all of its public schools by November 2005.
While the reconstruction process doesn’t dictate how localities should rebuild, Barbour has touted New Urbanist principles in constructing more compact communities. “They have the chance to build some things very differently,” he says. “The goal is to build the coast back like it can be, rather than simply like it was.”
Before the storm, Barbour, 59, was better known for his behind-the-scenes political acumen than any executive leadership abilities. He had lost his previous bid for office in a 1982 U.S. Senate race, then ran political operations for two years in the Reagan White House. Barbour served as chairman of the Republican National Committee when the GOP took control of Congress in 1994. He co-founded one of Washington’s most prominent lobbying firms before returning home to run for governor in 2003.
Barbour translated his lobbying skills into success at winning over a legislature dominated by Democrats. He’s proven to be a master at calling special sessions to force an issue, but legislators note that while Barbour is firm about his own opinions, he’s respectful of others.
Barbour inherited a $700 million budget deficit that he has erased without raising taxes. In fact, he vetoed a cigarette tax increase that had broad support. He increased state spending on K-12 education by 9 percent and higher-ed spending by even more. He’s also boosted spending on job training and economic development programs that are aimed at improving standards of living in his long-impoverished state. He kept the budget in the black by cutting in other areas, most notably Medicaid.
He also has successfully promoted broad policy changes, including a tort-reform measure that has been hailed as one of the strictest in the nation. Barbour rarely made a speech during his gubernatorial campaign without mentioning this subject and was able to convert political support into law, overcoming the resistance of House Democratic leaders. Barbour then embarked on a “tort tour” to encourage other states to follow Mississippi’s lead. “We’ve gone from being labeled as a judicial hellhole and the center of jackpot justice to a state that now has model legislation,” says Charlie Ross, a Republican who chairs the state Senate Judiciary Committee.
Barbour continued to make good use of salesmanship and his Republican connections in Washington after Katrina struck, helping secure billions in federal assistance. “It was a good time for Mississippi to have a very good lobbyist as its governor,” says former state House Speaker Tim Ford, a Democrat.
”Cheap, too,” chortles Barbour, when told of this remark.
— Alan Greenblatt
Photo by Mississippi Governor's Office