Pickering Up All the Pieces

What Happens if He Leaves?

Posted June 25, 2003 at 6:30pm

With Rep. Chip Pickering’s (R-Miss.) admission this week that he is considering leaving Congress to take a top job in the wireless phone industry, a short list of potential candidates who might run to replace him has emerged.

The 3rd district, which encompasses the Jackson suburbs and stretches from the southwestern corner of the state northeast toward Columbus, is considered a safe Republican seat after the redrawing of boundaries in the previous cycle.

However, because the current Congressional map was drawn by a federal court (and later upheld by the Supreme Court), the Democratic-controlled state Legislature has the ability to redraw district lines at any point. Therefore, lawmakers could seek to make the seat more competitive if presented with the potential for an open seat — and a possible Democratic pick-up.

Among Republicans, the most prominent name being mentioned as a potential candidate in the 3rd is state Auditor Phil Bryant, who has held the job since 1996 and is up for re-election this year.

Still, other potential GOP candidates are likely to surface in a district that voted 65 percent for George W. Bush in 2000 and Democrats acknowledge is not competitive under its current configuration.

“This would be a real long shot for Democrats, and we’re not anticipating any real serious play in it,” said one Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee official.

However, the party does have one potentially strong candidate in former Rep. Ronnie Shows (D-Miss.), who represented a portion of the district for two terms before the state lost one seat during reapportionment. During last cycle’s redistricting, Shows’ old 4th district seat was merged with Pickering’s 3rd district and the black voting-age population was heavily diluted. Shows lost the Member-versus-Member contest by 29 points last November.

The current district lines were drawn by a GOP-appointed three-judge federal panel after the state Legislature deadlocked and failed to reach consensus on a plan. Another map, which was drawn by a lower court judge and favored Democrats, did not receive pre-clearance from the U.S. Justice Department in time to be considered valid. Earlier this year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal judges had acted properly in drawing the district lines, after Democrats challenged the map.

Shows said Wednesday that he plans to discuss the possibility of running again with his wife this weekend while the family vacations in Florida. He also emphasized that financial commitments would need to be present from party leaders in order for him to run.

“We’re going to spend three or four days so I’m going to talk to her about it,” Shows said. “There’s got to be some strong commitments that we’re going to get some good financial support and then it’s just what do the people think in the district.”

Still, Shows sounded as if he might not be sufficiently rested from his 2002 battle to hit the campaign trail again anytime in the near future. He said he had planned to spend at least two or three years in the private sector before thinking about getting back into public service. Earlier this year, Shows turned down an opportunity to run for lieutenant governor.

“We just worked so hard during that [2002] campaign, I just ain’t that excited about getting right back into another one,” he said.

He also acknowledged the political reality of running again in a district where he garnered just 35 percent of the vote. He noted that even if he did run and win, it would be a constant struggle to be re-elected in the current district and it would require a round-the-clock fundraising operation, an aspect of being in Congress that he does not miss.

Shows’ old 4th district was also a Republican-leaning seat, and he remained a GOP target despite compiling one of the most conservative voting records among House Democrats during his two terms.

“It’s a very Republican district,” he said. “You’ve got to be practical and reasonable.”

Shows said he still maintains a good relationship with Pickering, with whom he said he discussed the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association’s top job Wednesday morning.

“It’s going to be a hard decision,” Shows said. “I can assure you that if I had five children — and the oldest one is 12 years old — I can assure you that he’s probably looking at this pretty, pretty strongly.”

One GOP strategist said the party was not sweating the possibility that Shows, whose folksy appeal aided his ability to connect with rural voters, could run in a special election.

“Mr. Shows got solidly beat last time,” the strategist said. “It’s not much of a concern at this point.”

According to the April quarterly report filed with the Federal Election Commission, Shows showed no residual debt from his 2002 campaign and had a little less than $1,500 in the bank at the end of March. Shows raised and spent roughly $1.4 million in his race against Pickering, one of four Member-versus-Member general election contests forced by redistricting last year.

If Pickering does decide to trade in his Hill office for new K Street digs, the timing of his mid-session retirement could be a crucial aspect of the fight to succeed him.

Mississippi is holding statewide elections this November and the election of a Democratic lieutenant governor could provide an opening for the state Legislature to revise the current Congressional lines.

Current Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck (R), who switched parties earlier this year, is a powerful figure in the state Senate. She supported GOP efforts to draw a map that favored Pickering over Shows.

But because the lines were drawn by the court, the state Legislature has the authority to redraw the lines whenever it wants, an option that Republican-controlled legislatures are availing themselves of in Colorado and Texas. While Democrats, who control both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature, seem reluctant to take a second look at the map while Tuck is in power, they could reconsider if a Democrat were elected lieutenant governor in November.