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Thank you for many jobs well done

We had been talking back and forth by phone all evening. The pressure had been building as the clock ticked towards a crucial midnight deadline. That same pressure had been building for months during the 1999 Legislative session.

I was at my office here in Brookhaven preparing the story for the next day’s paper. Dr. Barnett was walking the halls of the state capitol in Jackson.

What looked promising one moment would look bleak the next. Throughout the evening, tensions built. The Lincoln County legislator was calling in all of his political chips, working the political process with the best of them. Jim Barnett knew how to play the system; he knew how to twist arms when necessary or when to pat a back.

As midnight approached, you could feel the tension over the telephone line. “I think we are done; it’s all over,” he said finally with a deep sigh. “We gave it our best try.” Then there was a sudden pause, and in a whisper he said, “Hold on a second.”

He turned away from his cell phone. Someone had walked up, and I could hear a garbled conversation. I heard a big, “Thank you!”

He was emotional when he came back on the line. “Bill, we got it. We got the holdout signature. It is ours; the art school is ours!”

The bill to establish the Mississippi School of the Arts was literally dropped in the hopper in the final seconds before the deadline. HB 706 had been in the hands of a conference committee after passing the House and Senate a few days earlier. The conference committee is where final legislation is agreed upon – a single legislator, who was playing his own political poker game, had been holding up HB 706.

Dr. Jim Barnett has been a larger-than-life figure in Brookhaven all his adult life. As one of a handful of local physicians during the 1960s and early 70s, he touched many lives in all sectors of the community. He sewed up more than a few stitches on me when I was a youngster – as he did for so many others.

He birthed a few babies and conducted surgery when necessary. His efforts, along with the efforts of others in the medical community, laid the foundation for the King’s Daughters Medical Center we have today.

Just over a month after the passage of the Art School legislation, the good doctor was in yet another political battle. This time his battle was for his own political life. The Mississippi Democratic Party turned on him because they did not like his Republican leanings.

He had crossed party lines the year prior and voted in a Republican primary for Congressman Mike Parker; he too openly supported Gov. George W. Bush for President. He may have also twisted a few too many arms for the HB-706!

Democratic Party leaders decided to decertify him for the upcoming legislative elections. A rejection of his credentials would remove his name from the ballot, and his two-term political career would be over.

During a closed-door meeting in Jackson on an April Saturday afternoon, state Democratic leaders raked the good doctor over the coals. Some demanded an apology for his straying from the Democrat doctrine. It was a contentious meeting with a lot of raised voices – loud voices that could be heard outside the closed and locked doors.

When the dust settled, his name remained on the Democratic ballot. He was easily re-elected. Dr. Barnett got the last laugh and switched parties prior to the next election. He was a powerful and respected figure in the House of Representatives.

His tireless efforts over his four terms as our state representative brought numerous other projects to our area such as the Juvenile Detention Center, a Mental Health Crisis Center, a new National Guard Armory and a new Highway Patrol Office to name a few. Those efforts resulted in new and well paying jobs for local citizens – jobs that remain today.

Few individuals in a community can touch so many lives. Dr. Barnett did so as a physician and again as a state legislator. When one looks back at our community’s history, his fingerprints will be found on so, so many places and so many lives. Our community is better for his dedication to the community he so dearly loved.

Thank you, Representative/Doctor Jim Barnett. Thanks for a job well done.

Bill Jacobs is the former publisher of The Daily Leader.