Bill Minor, Thursday, June 24, 1999

JACKSON - Forget for a moment the disgraced current governor and the second-guessing by those who now say it was a mistake we elected him in the first place, and let's talk about who will succeed him in office.

We saw in a gubernatorial forum Saturday for the Mississippi Press Association a lot of scrambling by Republican candidates to distance themselves from Kirk Fordice, though none would say outright they would reject this support if given.

There are two front-runners for the GOP nomination former Lt. Gov. Eddie Briggs and ex-Congressman Mike Parker. You can rest assured Fordice ain't gonna do anything to help Briggs, because Briggs had the audacity to cross Fordice in 1994 and alter a special session call while Fordice was on safari. Remember, also, Briggs mildly threatened to challenge Fordice for the GOP nomination in 1995?

So, that leaves Mike Parker.

From what I know about Mississippi politics based on long experience in detecting who's really behind whom, there's been no doubt in my mind since the day Parker came back home and announced for governor that he was not only Sen. Trent Lott's chosen horse to keep the governorship in GOP hands, but Fordice's as well. Lott has relished becoming a power-broker since the 1980s, pushing aside Thad Cochran to grab it.

Not many Mississippians realize that our nearest thing to a state political machine in the old tradition of Theodore Bilbo, or Jim Eastland-Paul Johnson is the Republican machine headed by Trent Lott. Fordice, though initially a wild card, was eventually brought into the fold.

Parker, on the other hand, has been groomed for anointment by Lott for a long time. I can recall over five years ago when Parker was still a putative Democrat, Lott gave Parker free time on the so-called public service television spots Lott sent back to Mississippi stations produced at taxpayer expense, mind you.

The courting of Parker by Lott and other Mississippi Republican bigwigs to switch parties was finally consummated in December 1995 when Parker made it official. It was, in a political sense, a match made in heaven. When Parker proved in 1996 he could win re-election to his 4th District Congressional seat as a Republican, the Lott braintrust knew they had a horse they could ride in other races down the line.

That opportunity presented itself sometime in 1997 when Parker, itchy to leave Washington where he was spending little time because of his wife's illness and two younger children to worry about back home, gave Lott the go sign to line up the GOP money boys for a 1999 Parker gubernatorial bid.

I picked up the first inkling of that deal after learning Lott at a Christmas 1997 family gathering in Pascagoula at a time Democrat attorney general Mike Moore, a Pascagoulan incidentally, looked like a shoo-in for next governor revealed the GOP had a "surprise" strong horse to enter in the gubernatorial derby.

Of course, Parker was the surprise horse but only to us yokels back here

who don't know the plays being made and who the key players are.

Parker is a perfect choice for the role. He's a 10-year Congressman with no record of any achievements to show for, unless you count what he has been against.

He's good at play-acting, a talent he apparently perfected as an amateur actor back at William Carey College. He displayed that talent quite well in the 1996 congressional campaign against state treasurer Marshall Bennett with his effective moo-cow-in-the-pasture TV commercials.

Now Parker is serving us on TV a diet of fricasseed armadillo, as though the ugly armor-coated mammals seen mostly by motorists as road kill are some kind of endangered species loved by all.

As he screeches his sport utility vehicle to a halt to avoid smashing one of those ugly critters, he assures us "I'll look out for you,too."

Now if an armadillo represents the average Mississippian, the intelligence quotient of the average voter must be lower than when Cliff Finch fooled us into thinking he was a leader by lugging around a lunch pail and knocking over hillocks at the wheel of a bulldozer.

Perhaps Parker picked a campaign slogan of "looking out" for us, and, being as he is a former undertaker, not another: "I'll never let you down."

Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. His address is Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215.

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