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Even in death, opinions vary on the...

Even in death, opinions vary on the enigmatic former MDOT bureaucrat ‘Butch’ Brown

By: Sid Salter - May 3, 2023

Sid Salter

During his time in public service, the former Natchez mayor made loyal friends and bitter enemies throughout Mississippi.

Larry “Butch” Brown – for a decade in the early 2000s the intractable executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) – died April 25 at his Natchez home. He was 79.

Brown courageously battled cancer three times, yet still more than earned his three score and ten. On the way, Brown made loyal friends and bitter enemies. In his second re-election campaign in Natchez, Brown adopted the rather prescient slogan: “I may not be perfect, but I get things done.”

That, he did. A successful young businessman in Natchez, Brown’s first significant foray into public service was as one of the organizers and later a commissioner of the Mississippi-Louisiana Bridge Compact – which brought a new four-lane bridge to the Miss-Lou.

From that springboard, Brown in 1992 sought and won election as mayor of Natchez. He was re-elected in 1996 and won a third term in 2012. Brown’s generally acknowledged “bull in a china shop” management style came into focus, but locals in Natchez still re-elected him and praised his service.

At his death, current Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson said: “We have lost a giant today. (Brown) had unparalleled charisma, but he also had a love for Natchez that was truly heartfelt and at his very core. There are so many things he accomplished, that it’s hard to list them all. I know at some times he ruffled feathers, at some times he wore a few people out, because he never took ‘no’ for an answer.”

Gibson said Brown once told him that “no” was simply “a request for more information.”

Yet it was in his role as the bureaucrat in charge of MDOT that Brown’s statewide reputation grew on both sides of the public opinion aisle. Many, like his friends in Natchez, loved and admired Brown and pointed to his many accomplishments.

First, Brown won high praise for leading the state’s effort to rebuild the destroyed transportation system on the Gulf Coast after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Brown led the effort to replace the bridges destroyed by the hurricane and reconnect the three coastal Mississippi counties.

But he was likewise criticized for what many saw as a dictatorial style and for what even one of his die-hard supporters called “arrogance” while representing the state. Brown reportedly in a public setting (the allegation came from federal highway officials) called then-U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood “an a-hole.”

There were criticisms of Brown’s travel spending to exotic locations and criticism of the cost of an effort to remodel MDOT’s Jackson headquarters, which came to be called the “Taj Mahal.”

Brown famously feuded with the late Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall. Brown’s battles with the elected Transportation Commission and Brown’s MDOT domain were legendary. Brown was hired, confirmed by the state Senate, fired, rehired, reconfirmed, and ultimately survived a lot of political drama, much of it self-inflicted. That, until Brown ran out of friends among the elected commissioners and his MDOT tenure ended in 2011.

But the MDOT helicopter escapade on Brown’s watch was sort of the highwater mark of Brown’s flamboyance. A state helicopter – a 2001 Eurocopter with room for four and a pilot – formerly operated by the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics was sold in 2004 for $530,781 to MDOT.

“Fuel tax evasion surveillance” is what Brown said MDOT was doing with the craft. He said MDOT’s helicopter was searching for fuel tax dodgers who were supposedly smuggling fuel in a 3,000-ton tanker along the banks of the Mississippi River and offloading the bootleg fuel into a truck that would then transport the untaxed fuel to illegal sales points.

The late Jerry Wilkerson, who lobbied for the convenience store and petroleum industries in the Mississippi Legislature, said of the helicopter episode: “I’ve been hearing about that (illegal gas) barge for years, but we have yet to find it.” MDOT never found the nefarious illegal gas smugglers. Dick Hall had a field day – but the controversy never seemed to bother Butch at all.

As he said in 2010 about another peccadillo: “I’m Butch Brown. I’m from a river town. That’s how we act.”

About the Author(s)
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Sid Salter

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. He is Vice President for Strategic Communications at Mississippi State University. Sid is a member of the Mississippi Press Association's Hall of Fame. His syndicated columns have been published in Mississippi and several national newspapers since 1978.