A local in the Senate couldn’t hurt — A Hyde-Smith win is a long-term benefit

Published 9:39 pm Friday, March 30, 2018

What does it mean to be the hometown of a U.S. senator?

Will automobile manufacturing plants spring up from the ground overnight? Will defense contractors open local offices and begin pumping grant money into high school science labs? Will local elected leaders get a say-so in heavy national policy issues?

Probably not.

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But if Brookhaven’s Cindy Hyde-Smith wins her special election this November to become a permanent fixture in the U.S. Senate, it will certainly open up benefits and new opportunities for the citizens of Lincoln County.

“Will manna flow in from Heaven? I wouldn’t think so. But it will be great for Brookhaven to have a relationship with the person making decisions that concern our country and our area, in particular,” said Bank of Brookhaven Chairman and CEO Bill Sones. “From that standpoint, it’s going to be a great thing.”

Sones has been in the economic development business for more than 30 years, serving as chairman of the Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce and Industrial Development Foundation numerous times, and his presence is automatic whenever big business power plays are considered around Ole Brook.

And the truth is, U.S. senators don’t have much to do with those moves initially, Sones said. A high-placed politician is most useful in the cleanup phase, when much of the major deals have been struck and a little persuasion from on high might help seal it up.

“We still have to do the important things you have to do for economic development — have available property, available assets, a suitable workforce. Nothing will ever replace that,”  Sones said. “But I tell you, if we had a big project and we had a local senator, we would be trying our best to get their input and assistance. That’s an important role Cindy could play not only here for us, but for the whole state, and she’s good at that. She’s a very good negotiator and she has great common sense.”

Even if a senator wanted to drop big projects directly into her hometown, the Senate’s rules and the nation’s current political reality make it a very difficult task, said John Hudak, a senior fellow of governance studies and deputy director of the Brookings Institute’s Center for Effective Public Management.

“It’s true senators will try to steer federal dollars back to their state, but their ability to do that has been crippled by the removal of earmarking,” he said. “And, as a conservative in the South, there are some people who are looking to senators to be able to bring home pork, but there are others who are very turned off by that kind of behavior.”

Hudak, author of the 2014 book “Presidential Pork: White House Influence over the Distribution of Federal Grants,” said Hyde-Smith’s ability to ship bacon back to Brookhaven would also be limited by her standing in the Senate.

Even if she’s elected to the job full-time later this year, she will be the nation’s most junior senator in an institution where seniority is a major factor, Hudak said. She’ll be facing lower-level committee assignments where her ability to influence policy will be limited.

Hyde-Smith was appointed to temporarily serve in the U.S. Senate by Gov. Phil Bryant on March 21 in a ceremony in downtown Brookhaven. She’ll take over for longtime Sen. Thad Cochran, who is retiring April 1 due to declining health.

It could be some time before Hyde-Smith’s feet fit snug into Cochran’s 40-year-old Senate shoes. The outgoing senator is known nationally as one of the greatest pork-getters in recent history, serving two different stints as chairman of the prestigious Senate Appropriations Committee and sending millions of dollars in projects and infrastructure improvements back to Mississippi.

“That’s not a reflection on her as far as her abilities, it’s just a reflection on how the institution works,” Hudak said. “Historically, Southern senators have been some of the most powerful elected officials in terms of engaging in pork barrel politics… and Sen. Cochran is someone who has been quite good at doing that over the years. He’s made a career in engaging in that type of behavior, and at the end of the day, what is he doing? He’s helping Mississippi, and that’s why people elected him.”

On the other hand, Hyde-Smith would have the chance to rise fast if she’s elected to the Senate. Hudak pointed out around 60 percent of the chamber has been reelected since Barack Obama became president, a significant 10-year turnover rate.

He said junior senators can move up the seniority ladder in a hurry, and Hyde-Smith could collect a subcommittee chairmanship after a full term. She could also find herself a ranking Republican if the party loses its majority.

“It’s not going to be if she wins her special election she suddenly becomes a more-senior person, but you can see four years out her being someone who is able to rack up some seniority,” Hudak said.

Even if Hyde-Smith’s career survives into seniority, history suggests the perks will be regional rather than direct to Brookhaven.

John C. Stennis Institute of Government advisory board member and longtime Mississippi political observer Sid Salter called the benefits to senators’ hometowns a “mixed bag.” He pointed out the boon has usually been to the area, not the city.

Salter cited Sen. John Stennis’ protection of the state’s defense industries and military bases, as well as Sen. Jim Eastland’s shepherding of the agriculture industry and judicial appointments. Stennis’ tenure brought good things to East Central Mississippi while Eastland’s brought security to the Delta, but their hometowns of De Kalb and Doddsville, respectively, did not turn into hubs of political and economic prominence.

“Is having a senator from your hometown a benefit? Absolutely. Is it an endless stream of federal dollars for that hometown? Not really,” Salter said. “But in almost 40 years of watching Mississippi politics, I’ve never seen a community ask a U.S. senator to move elsewhere. Having a U.S. senator as a local citizen is kind of like having hot chicken soup when you’re ill. As the saying goes, ‘it sure couldn’t hurt.’”