Elected: 2010, 3rd term.
Born: October 8, 1958, Tupelo
Education: MS St. U., B.S. 1980.
Professional Career: V.P., American Funeral Assn. Insurance Co., 1981-94; founder, Allied Funeral Associates.
Family: Married (Tori) , 3
NOTE: Nunnelee died on Feb. 6, 2015. Repubican Gov. Phil Bryant has scheduled a May 12 special election for the District 1 seat.
Republican Alan Nunnelee is a strong social and fiscal conservative and loyal GOP soldier who deliberately makes fewer waves than his more boisterous colleagues from the freshman class of 2010. He has battled health problems throughout his life and was hospitalized for much of 2014 after doctors discovered a brain tumor.
Nunnelee was born in Tupelo, the first of four children. His mother was just 17 when he was born; his father 19. But the couple began to save for their children’s college education from the time they were babies. His father became a successful insurance agent and his mother returned to community college to become a pediatric nurse when Nunnelee was in middle school. His parents were devout Christians. “Church was very much a part of my life, and I think that laid the foundation of my political beliefs,” Nunnelee said in an interview with National Journal.
When he was in college, a congenital disease caused Nunnelee’s eyesight to deteriorate until he went blind during his junior year. Determined to continue his studies, he bought his textbooks on tape, recorded his lectures, and arranged for friends to drive him to classes. His vision problems once resulted in a job offer being retracted. But he said the disability also taught him to be self-reliant.
In 1980, Nunnelee received his bachelor’s degree in marketing from Mississippi State University. Shortly after graduating, Nunnelee underwent cornea transplants on both eyes to restore his vision, procedures made possible by the family of an organ donor around his age. “All I know is that there was a family of a 20-something-year-old man or woman, and on the very worst day of their life—when they had lost a child, a brother or a sister—they thought of someone other than themselves,” he said. “I see today because of their generosity.”
Nunnelee followed his father into the insurance industry and eventually started his own company, Allied Funeral Associates. One of Nunnelee’s first experiences in politics was working for 1st District Rep. Roger Wicker’s 1994 campaign for the House. When Wicker won, local Republicans urged Nunnelee to run for Wicker’s vacated seat in the state Senate, which he won. Over the course of a 16-year career in the legislature, Nunnelee championed conservative causes and wielded considerable control over the state budget as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. In 2003, he headed a successful effort to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Nunnelee says that his proudest accomplishment was passing a statutory rape law increasing the age of consent for sex from 13 to 16.
In 2010, Nunnelee secured the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic Rep. Travis Childers, who had won the seat just two years earlier in a special election to replace Wicker after Wicker was appointed to the Senate. Republicans had been targeting Childers from almost the moment he prevailed in a low-turnout affair against Greg Davis, the mayor of Southaven.
In his campaign to unseat Childers, Nunnelee tried to tie him to President Barack Obama and liberal House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, casting himself as the only “true conservative” in the contest. Childers, a member of the Blue Dog Coalition of conservative Democrats, highlighted his endorsements from the National Rifle Association and the National Right to Life organization. Nunnelee stayed competitive with Childers in fundraising, raising $900,000 to Childers’ $1.3 million. He won 55% to 41%.
In the House, Nunnelee was given a seat on the Appropriations Committee in recognition of his state experience. He eschewed the extreme rhetoric and tactics of his Class of 2010 colleagues, telling National Journal in 2011: “The American people sent us here to change Washington, and I think we’re doing that. But we also have to govern, and part of governing is funding the government.” He opposed the New Year’s Day 2013 budget compromise aimed at averting the so-called “fiscal cliff” and a subsequent disaster relief bill for states affected by Hurricane Sandy.
But he has been mostly a dependable vote for his party’s leaders, even opposing the Essential Air Service program that subsidizes airlines operating out of small airports, including one in his district. He showed his social conservative side with an amendment to a 2013 spending bill that extended a ban on abortion coverage in the federal employees’ benefits program. He also endorsed former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s presidential bid.
But Nunnelee’s support of the 2011 compromise to raise the federal debt limit and other of his votes were deemed insufficiently conservative among some Republicans back home. He drew a GOP primary challenge in 2012 from former Eupora Mayor Henry Ross, who said, “Alan is a nice guy, but we don’t need nice guys in Washington. It’s time for someone committed to taking our country back.” Ross was no match for Nunnelee financially, however, and the incumbent won with 57% to Ross’ 29%, with trucking executive Robert Estes picking up 14%.
Nunnelee’s general-election opponent was Democrat Brad Morris, a former chief of staff to Childers. In such a conservative district, Morris faced an uphill battle, and Nunnelee won with 60%. After the election, Nunnelee underwent successful heart-valve replacement surgery. However, when he complained of fatigue in May 2014, doctors discovered the brain tumor. During surgery to remove it, he suffered a stroke that caused impaired speech and numbness on his left side.
After undergoing chemotherapy and rehabilitation, he returned to Congress in the fall, relying on a wheelchair. He breezed to reelection with 68% of the vote. But he was subsequently admitted to the hospital to treat a hematoma on his left leg, and had to receive the oath of office for the 114th Congress (2015-16) from a rehabilitation center.