Columnist Sid Salter reflects on the pinnacle of traditional political “stump speaking” in Mississippi at the Neshoba County Fair.
In three formal debates and innumerable individual speeches over the ensuing 134-year history of Mississippi’s most storied political speaking venue since 1889, the Neshoba County Fair Association has maintained order and enforced its rules.
The three debates include a 1928 U.S. Senate race debate between Democratic contenders incumbent U.S. Sen, Hubert D. Stephens of New Albany and challenger U.S. Rep. T. Wilson Webber of Laurel, a 1995 debate between Republican incumbent Gov. Kirk Fordice of Vicksburg and Democratic Secretary of State Dick Molpus of Philadelphia, and a 2002 debate between congressional contenders Republican Chip Pickering and Democrat Ronnie Shows.
Mississippi’s political pendulum has swung wide over the course of those three debates – from monolithic Democratic Party rule in 1928 to growing partisan realignment in the 1990s to a near monolithic Republican Party rule of Mississippi over the last 20 years.
But one thing has remained true – the Fair runs its speaking program based on its established time limits and rules. Candidates get 10-minute time allotments. The Fair’s leaders have been challenged twice in the federal courts over their legal rights to establish limits and maintain order and prevailed in both instances.
Certainly, the three debates were loud, raucous affairs with a significant amount of audience reaction. There are newspaper accounts of the 1928 debate, and I was standing on the stage moderating the 1995 and 2002 debates. But with security, a solid plan of crowd control and an attitude of polite but firm decorum, neither the debates nor decades of rafter-rattling, fiery individual candidate speeches have gotten out of hand.
Neshoba County Fair historian and author Steve Stubbs detailed in his fine 2005 published history of the institution that the central bone of contention in the 1928 debate was allegations that Sen. Stephens had engaged in federal patronage corruption “in awarding post office construction contracts to political cronies.”
Legendary Jackson Daily News Editor Fred Sullens was at the press table. In print, Sullens had encouraged Webber to testify before a grand jury investigating the matter. Webber did so and three individuals were indicted.
In front of the Neshoba audience, Webber stopped at the press table and loudly said: “Fred, I thank God for you.” Sullens shot back: “I’m glad you are thanking Him for something, Webber.”
Not to be outdone, Webber replied: “Well, I ain’t thanking Him for much.”
Whether candidates, their supporters, the media or an engaged crowd tried to hijack the proceedings, the Fair’s leadership maintained order and decorum.
That fact hasn’t stopped candidates or their seconds from attempting a wide array of stunts and strategies designed to gain some perceived advantage, but the Fair’s leadership has parried those attempts effectively.
As noted last week, the Neshoba County Fair – “Mississippi’s Giant Houseparty” – has 41 political speeches scheduled this week, representing the pinnacle of traditional political “stump speaking” in Mississippi. But the races for governor and lieutenant governor are expected to draw the largest crowds and the most media attention.
The marquee speeches this week will be the candidates for lieutenant governor, including incumbent Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann (R) and challengers Shane Quick (R), Tiffany Longino (R), and state Sen. Chris McDaniel. McDaniel and Hosemann will speak back-to-back Wednesday, July 26 at 10:20 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. in what should be the most heavily anticipated and scrutinized speeches of the day.
Statewide voters have elected Hosemann three times for secretary of state and once for lieutenant governor while rejecting McDaniel in statewide races for U.S. Senate in 2014 against the late Thad Cochran and in 2018 against now-U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith.
Thursday’s speeches will feature the four candidates for Mississippi governor, including Republican challengers David Hardigree and Dr. John Witcher, Democrat challenger and current Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley and incumbent Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, who is seeking a second term. Presley will speak at 10:30 a.m. followed by Reeves at 10:40 a.m.
Not even the record heat projected this week is expected to hold back fair patrons and guests alike from attending the 2023 edition of the fair, listening to the speeches, and then enjoying the Fair’s hospitality.