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.