Published 12:00 am Monday, February 1, 2016

Jack Reed Sr. would have made a great Mississippi governor

Saddened to learn of the passing of iconic Tupelo businessman Jack Reed Sr. this week, my thoughts returned to 1987 and the campaign which saw the Mississippi Republican Party lay the groundwork for the current dominance the party has in state politics.
Reed, whose personal political interests were far more ensconced in improving public education, economic development, and transportation than in Republican party-building, was without question part of the bringing GOP success to the last bastion of white Yellow Dog Democrat support in our state – northeast Mississippi.
Over our history, Mississippi voters have had some interesting choices in gubernatorial politics but perhaps never more so than in the 1987 general election.
In that contest, the voters chose Harvard-educated Democrat state auditor Ray Mabus – then 39 – over Republican Tupelo businessman and civic leader Jack Reed Sr., then 63. Mabus won 53 percent of the statewide vote to 47 percent for Reed.
But Reed outpolled Mabus among white voters by about 3 to 2 – according to The New York Times – while Mabus benefitted from what then-Mississippi Democratic Party chairman Steve Patterson called after the election “the classic redneck-black neck coalition.”
But other than the 1999 plurality election of Democrat Ronnie Musgrove – which had to be decided by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives – the Mabus win over Reed marked the last time that the coalition Patterson described had enough strength to propel a Democrat to victory in a Mississippi governor’s race.
Clearly, Jack Reed Sr. is a man who by every meaningful measure would have made a great governor. His temperament, his feel for dealing with controversy in a non-combative manner and his absolute refusal to engage in race-baiting would have made him so – that and his keen, undeniable intellect.
Reed had the patrician manners, look, and dress of a man whose family had been in the department store business since 1905. But he possessed a curious ability to put people at ease and to cross Mississippi’s socio-economic boundaries with ease and grace.
Covering his 1987 campaign against Mabus and moderating a televised debate between the two, I marveled at Reed’s ability to forcefully disagree with Mabus on policy issues without becoming disagreeable.
Through the prism of history, what is also remarkable from that 1987 race is how close Mabus and Reed were on issues like support for public education. They struggled to delineate differences on that core issue of Mississippi’s long term economic success running a route past the schoolhouse door.
But on taxes and strategies to pay teachers better, the pair had very legitimate differences. The fact is that without Reed’s GOP candidacy in 1987, the later successes of Republican Mississippi governors Kirk Fordice, Haley Barbour and Phil Bryant might well have been more difficult to achieve and certainly might have taken longer.
After that 1987 loss, Reed returned to Tupelo and went about his business, literally. He continued a lifetime of working for tolerance and racial reconciliation. He continued to be an advocate for public education. He continued to work to make Tupelo and north Mississippi better and stronger.
I suspect nothing pleased Jack Reed more than the establishment of the Winter-Reed Award by the Mississippi Association of Partners in Education in 2007. The award honored Reed and former Democratic Gov. William Winter for lifetime service in the cause of Mississippi public education and encourages recipients to continue their work.
Jack Reed understood that bipartisan public policy is perhaps hardest to achieve but in the long run the most effective and rewarding. His friendship and common bond with William Winter in those noble pursuits reiterated that knowledge.
Reed’s life is a monument to the fact that people can and should work together for the common good – and that such work pays lasting and important dividends.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com

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