Rep. Bennie Thompson (D)
Mississippi 2nd District
“The Mississippi Delta,” wrote Delta native David Cohn, “begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” For centuries, the flooding Mississippi and Yazoo rivers left their sediments here, producing a fertile, dark soil. Ironically, what may well be America’s richest agricultural land has been home for more than a century to many of its poorest people. Crisscrossed by rivers and famously disease-ridden, the Delta wasn’t much settled until after the Civil War. The tradition here is Reconstruction-era profit-seeking operators who used late-19th-century technology to drain the land, line the river with levees, and build railroads on tracks above the rise of the river. Black sharecroppers and field hands worked here in conditions almost of bondage. From this episode of industrial farming came both great misery and great art: Clarksdale in Coahoma County was the real birthplace of blues music, the home of W.C. Handy and Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner, and Sam Cooke. Greenville on the Mississippi has produced writers of the caliber of Walker Percy and Shelby Foote. Yazoo City produced author Willie Morris and bluesman Skip James. Today, Vicksburg’s antebellum mansions and battlefield monuments bring in 1.5 million tourists annually.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
Twentieth-century technology changed life in the Delta. The mechanical cotton-picking machine, invented in 1944, came along just as Northern factories were seeking low-wage workers. The great exodus to Chicago and other cities in the North began, and the Delta’s population has been declining ever since. Income levels remain very low, poverty is over 50% in some areas, and infant mortality is at Third World levels. City-style crime and drugs from Chicago have been brought back by Delta migrants returning home. Yet there are signs of hope. Soybeans have become a big-dollar crop here, poultry farms have become a major enterprise, and the Delta produces most of the nation’s catfish. To control flooding and boost crop yield, farmers are pushing for the installation of pumps between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, but the Environmental Protection Agency has been reluctant to approve them.
Tunica County is by some measures the nation’s poorest county, and the best it could do economically in recent years was to attract gambling businesses. It has nine casinos, and runways at the regional airport have been extended to accommodate jets bearing tourists and players in national poker tournaments. The casinos have increased local per capita income and decreased welfare rolls, but there is still a gulf between rich and poor. The Delta has been slow to develop a self-propelling market economy. At the edge of the Delta there are other economic stories. Just north of the fast-growing and affluent suburbs of Jackson, Nissan operates a 5,000-employee factory in Canton, historically a heavily African-American area. The plant produces the flexfuel Titan and Armada vehicles, and is expected to expand to build Nissan’s new light commercial vehicle, the NV2500. One consequence was the tripling of land values, as thousands more jobs were created for suppliers, and property moved from agriculture to residential or commercial use.
The 2nd Congressional District of Mississippi includes the entire Delta, indeed the whole Mississippi riverfront from Tunica almost to Natchez. It includes most of heavily black and low-income Jackson and surrounding Hinds County except for the affluent Bellehaven neighborhood. This is Mississippi’s one black-majority district, created in 1984. It includes a few counties in the east that are majority white and vote Republican, but the political tone of the district is set by the African-American neighborhoods in Jackson and the counties of the Delta. Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, these were run politically by segregationists like Democratic Sen. James Eastland, a Delta cotton plantation owner and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman from 1955 to 1979. In 1986, the district elected its first black congressman since Reconstruction, Democrat Mike Espy, whose grandfather and father were among the biggest landowners in the state. In 2008, the 2nd was the only Mississippi district to vote for the nation’s first African-American president, Democrat Barack Obama, who got 66% of the vote.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D)
Elected: April 1993, 8th full term.
Born: Jan. 28, 1948, Bolton .
Education: Tougaloo Col., B.A. 1968, Jackson St. U., M.S. 1972.
Family: Married (London); 1 child.
Elected office: Bolton Bd. of Aldermen, 1969–73; Bolton mayor, 1973–79; Hinds Cnty. Supervisor, 1980–93.
The congressman from the 2nd District is Democrat Bennie Thompson, who was elected in April 1993. He grew up in Bolton, in Hinds County outside Jackson, and graduated from Tougaloo College and Jackson State University. He was elected alderman in Bolton in 1969, at age 21, and elected mayor four years later. He was the first Mississippi politician to get a street named after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. A volunteer firefighter for much of his adult life, he got the first fire engine for Bolton, too. In 1980, he became a Hinds County supervisor. A lifelong grassroots activist and labor organizer, he successfully encouraged other African-Americans to run for office. After Espy resigned from Congress in 1993 to become President Bill Clinton’s Agriculture secretary, Thompson ran for the seat in an all-party primary. He came out ahead of Henry Espy, Mike Espy’s brother and mayor of Clarksdale, 28%-20%. Republican Hayes Dent, an aide to Gov. Kirk Fordice, led with 34%. Voting in the runoff was mostly along racial lines, and Thompson won 55%-45%, with his margin coming mostly from Hinds County.
|Bennie Thompson (D)||201,606||(69%)||($1,081,785)|
|Richard Cook (R)||90,364||(31%)|
|Bennie Thompson (D)||111,077||(86%)|
|Dorothy Benford (D)||17,824||(14%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (64%), 2004 (58%), 2002 (55%), 2000 (65%), 1998 (71%), 1996 (60%), 1994 (54%), 1993 (55%)
Thompson has a solidly liberal voting record. He initially made no particular attempt to win white votes, making almost as few concessions across the racial divide as Eastland had. In time, he moderated his votes and reached out to whites, including some of the district’s large farmers. After the Democrats won control of the House, Thompson became chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, where he has focused on the needs of first responders. Previously, he was the ranking minority member of the panel. When he first arrived on the committee in 2005, he caused some turmoil by firing some staffers, cutting the pay of others, and hiring more minority aides. But he also began a sometimes-productive working relationship with Republican Chairman Peter King of New York.
After Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana and Mississippi in August 2005, revealing the weaknesses in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s ability to respond to a disaster of that magnitude, Thompson said, “It’s like they brought a squirt gun to put out a forest fire.” He found the federal assistance lines so tied up that he sent an aide with a cellphone to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. In 2006, House Republicans proposed to establish FEMA as an entirely independent agency, but Thompson and King instead called for keeping it within the Department of Homeland Security, but with the kind of autonomy the Coast Guard has there. Thompson worked with King on the first authorization bill for DHS, but his amendment to increase funding from $35 billion to $41 billion was defeated on a 16-13 party-line vote. Thompson negotiated with King on an agreement to restructure FEMA. As part of the deal, Thompson demanded an additional $3 billion for state and local governments to develop interoperable communications, and when King declined, he refused to support the bill. Ultimately, the authorization bill died in the Senate.
Thompson had a testy relationship with President Bush’s Homeland Security chief, Michael Chertoff. He frequently criticized Chertoff, once accusing him of lapses in security at maritime cargo checkpoints and once of playing “political games” with chemical security legislation by opposing a bill allowing states to impose additional regulations at facilities. The department under Chertoff, Thompson complained, suffered from high turnover, low morale, and a lack of diversity.
Taking over as chairman in January 2007, Thompson shepherded through the House one of the new Democratic majority’s “first 100 hours” bills, which was to adopt the recommendations of the 9/11 commission. It included a requirement to screen all passenger jet and ship cargo, and became law in August 2007. Thompson’s priorities include encouraging awards of contracts to minority firms, making sure that contractors hire minorities, delivering research money to historically black colleges and universities, and ensuring that border security and Transportation Security Administration officers don’t single out travelers because of race or ethnicity.
In the 111th Congress (2009-10), Thompson pushed to centralize oversight of the Homeland Security Department under his committee, ending the current practice of spreading jurisdiction among several committees. He persuaded the Democratic Caucus to adopt rules ensuring more bills would be referred to his committee. He also planned to conduct oversight of the planned closing of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
Thompson’s arguably confrontational politics have brought him opposition in the 2nd District. In 2002, he was re-elected by a less than impressive 55%-43% against Republican challenger Clinton LeSueur, a consultant to the Yazoo Community Action Agency. LeSueur ran again in 2004 and spent three times the money he had before, but Thompson increased his victory to 58%-41%. In 2006, state Rep. Chuck Espy, nephew of the former representative, challenged him in the primary, but Thompson prevailed 64%-35%. He also cruised to re-election in 2008, winning 69%-31%.
In 2009, Thompson came under fire from local Republicans after the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported on trips to vacation destinations he took that were paid for by special-interest groups. The AFL-CIO labor union paid for him to travel to Las Vegas, the International Longshoreman’s Association sent him to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and the Carib News Organization, which publishes a newspaper on Caribbean issues, funded a trip to the island of St. Maarten in the Caribbean. Thompson defended the trips as necessary to learn firsthand about homeland-security issues, and said they were approved by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.