By Steven Nalley
Neither rain nor wind nor a tornado warning were able to stop the Starkville TEA Party from hosting the three Republican candidates for Mississippi Treasurer Friday afternoon.
The featured candidates were Lynn Fitch, executive director of the state Personnel Board; Lee Yancey, District 20 state senator; and Lucien Smith, who served until recently as budget advisor to Governor Haley Barbour.
With rain preventing the meeting from taking place on the steps of the old Oktibbeha County Courthouse as planned, the meeting began instead in the courtroom of the new county courthouse. After Jessie Bennett opened the meeting by singing “Bring Back the Cross,” Fitch was the first candidate to address the audience of about a dozen.
Fitch said the TEA Party had changed the political environment around the state and the country. She said she wanted to treat voters as if they were interviewing her for the job of state treasurer.
“I want you to hire me,” Fitch said, “and the first thing you do when you hire somebody is look at their experience.”
Fitch said her experience on the State Personnel Board, overseeing 130 agencies and 32,000 employees, would translate well to the office of state treasurer. Since she became executive director, she said, the board had cut 40 percent of its budget. While this reduced the size of the staff, the remaining staff members have stepped up to a larger workload and are better prepared for the next steps in their careers, Fitch said.
“We have been doing more with less,” Fitch said. “I can take that to the state treasurer level.”
Near the end of Fitch’s speech, county officials asked everyone to take shelter in the courthouse’s vault, because a tornado had been spotted in Starkville’s Longview community. Once the guests, organizers and audience were safely inside, Fitch concluded her speech, and Yancey’s speech began with a little levity.
“This is exciting,” Yancey said. “I feel pretty relaxed here in the vault.”
Yancey said he had grown up idolizing Ronald Reagan, and up until his election to the Senate, he had volunteered on campaigns for Haley Barbour, Amy Tuck, Chip Pickering, “and everyone else you can think of.” After joining the Senate, he said, he also became part of its finance committee and began to see the state’s spending problems up close.
“I signed Grover Norquist’s pledge never to raise taxes, and I’m one of the few people to keep that pledge,” Yancey said.
Yancey said this pledge also meant he was committed to preventing excess spending, even when it’s unpopular in the Senate. For example, he said he had voted against a bond for a civil rights museum in Jackson when he discovered it would cost $91 million to build the museum, with exhibits totaling $24 million.
“In a time when one in 10 Mississippians is out of work, I thought it was irresponsible to build a $100 million museum, whether it was for civil rights or the Civil War or whatever,” Yancey said.
Smith was the last of the three speakers, and he, like Fitch, said the TEA Party was an important movement, one that had uncovered the biggest problem in modern politics.
“The problem in Mississippi is the same problem we have in D.C.,” Smith said. “There are too many people in public life who are looking out for their own careers instead of the taxpayers.”
As the governor’s budget advisor, Smith said, he said what he was proudest of was serving as legal advisor for Barbour’s campaign against President Barack Obama’s plan for health care reform. Unlike other politicians, he said, he did not act on his own interests or those of his fellow Republicans.
“We need a treasurer who stands up and says, ‘This is good for you, but bad for the taxpayers,’ and that’s what I’ve done,” Smith said.”
After the event, Jud Ward, head of the events team for the Starkville TEA Party, said it wouldn’t have been fair to cancel the event that day, even with the guests, organizers and audience taking shelter, because the guests had already made a commitment the STP needed to honor.
“I thought about it as it got closer, but it was too late to do anything about it then,” Ward said. “We’ve got a prayer team, and we put it in the hands of our prayer team.”