Sid Salter Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Salter: Mabus proves capable Obama spokesman in hinterlands campaign

Barack Obama drew rock star crowds in the nation’s largest cities, but some of his surrogate presidential campaign speakers like former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus drew less glamourous assignments.

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After a fiery career as a crusading state auditor, Mabus served as Mississippi’s governor from 1988 to 1992. He served as President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1994 to 1996.

Mabus drew crowds of 55 and 50 in places like Danville and Waynesboro, Va. The Ackerman native campaigned in Texarkana, Ark., and in Chattanooga, Tenn. He spoke for Obama in rural Ohio towns like Troy, Fremont, Marion and Bucyrus.

‘Something Different’

After Mabus endorsed Obama in the spring of 2007, he said the Obama campaign sent him over the next year to speak in 24 states at over 300 events in places in rural America “where a presidential campaign has literally never visited.”

Mabus packed them in for a breakfast rally at Something Different restaurant in Wilson, N.C., in late October — all 150 of them.

Don’t laugh. Whatever Mabus said must have worked. Obama had won North Carolina, the first Democrat to carry the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

And what of rural, majority-white (55 percent) Wilson County, N.C.? Obama carried Wilson County 53 percent to 47 percent.

Mabus, 60, is in the tree farming business in Choctaw County and serves on several corporate boards in addition to a wide array of charitable and philanthropic work.  He has a daughter at Harvard and another in high school and a stepdaughter, age seven. Mabus’ wife, Lynne, is a nurse.

Mabus expended no small amount of time or shoe leather working for Obama in critical Democratic swing states like North Carolina and Virginia. His message? According to The Wilson Daily Times, Mabus carried Obama’s water on the basic concept of change: “John McCain has been in the Senate for 26 years and just decided in August that change was needed. That is the flattest learning curve that I’ve ever seen.”

Rural voters listened

But it wasn’t all snarky partisan one-liners. Mabus talked about health care coverage and his own health problems as a young man. Mabus has successfully battled Crohn’s Disease, a chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, most of his adult life.

Mabus said issues like the national health care crisis, high energy and food prices and rising unemployment resonated with the rural voters he encountered.

“The reason I worked so hard as long as I did campaigning for President-elect Obama was because I thought he would be a really good president, not because of anything that might come my way,” said Mabus, who declined comment on media speculation that he’s being considered for significant service in Obama’s administration.

“I had a great time during the campaign and I think I did some good,” said Mabus. “I’m really having fun working on the transition. Life’s pretty good right now.”

Back in 1991, Mabus hired a young political consultant in his gubernatorial re-election bid that he eventually lost to Republican Kirk Fordice? That young consultant’s name — Obama’s designated White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

(Contact Perspective Editor Sid Salter at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail Visit his blog at