This is an expanded version of the story related in Remember Mississippi.
Senator Chris McDaniel has always been a fighter. He’s always stood up for the rights of all Mississippians, no matter the political cost. There is never a political calculation with him, just an intense desire to defend freedom, liberty, and the Constitution.
These facts are best illustrated by his fight to reform eminent domain, which ultimately shielded the property rights of all Mississippians against the encroaching arm of a government in the hands of crony capitalists. This battle, pitting governor against state senator, was the first crack in the current party split.
Governor Haley Barbour aggressively opposed Chris McDaniel in his 2014 race against Thad Cochran. Most contend that he did so in order to keep Ole Thad, his lifeline to the appropriations process, in place in the US Senate. That’s certainly true but there’s another aspect to the story: Barbour simply disliked McDaniel.
The main source of the bitterness stemmed from the fact that Senator McDaniel was one of the only members of the legislature who had the guts to stand up to Barbour. And he did so on the important issue of eminent domain. This issue showcased the divide between conservatives and the Establishment in Mississippi, and is further proof of the influence peddling that dominates state government.
Governor Barbour was more than eager to allow corporations to acquire private property for private use, long a thorny issue in Mississippi and across the country. Under the Constitution, the government is allowed to acquire private property for public use with “just compensation.” But the problem came when the government began siding with corporations that wanted private property for their own uses. This was abuse, pure and simple, and blatantly unconstitutional.
But in 2005 the business interests got a major shot in the arm when the US Supreme Court handed down its now infamous Kelo decision, allowing the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to seize private homes in Connecticut in order to build a new plant, a facility that was never constructed. Did Pfizer ever intend to build the plant, or were the powers that be simply showing the little people that government can take whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it? I can’t speak for Pfizer or the state of Connecticut but in Mississippi, under Governor Ronnie Musgrove, Barbour’s predecessor, that seemed to be the case when the abuse of eminent domain involving a new Nissan plant in Canton got so bad that the state Supreme Court suspended the practice entirely pending judicial review.
In one of Mississippi’s biggest boondoggles, the state shelled out more than $400 million in cash and tax incentives to build the Nissan plant, the largest such package in the nation’s history. To make way for the new factory and the mass of roads needed to feed it, the state began using eminent domain to seize property. In 2001, the state seized the home and property of Lorenzo Archie, an African American who had owned the land for decades. The seizure also grabbed seven acres of his father’s adjoining property. But Archie fought back, and the state eventually dropped the case, especially when it was discovered that it didn’t really need the land anyway and just wanted to show that it could be taken by the state whenever it wanted.
With abuse this bad, Senator McDaniel took it upon himself to fix the problem in Mississippi, rather than have these issues sorted out by the courts. Governor Barbour was determined to continue this unethical alliance between business and government. So in 2009 Senator McDaniel led the fight on the Senate floor to stop the government’s land grab policy with a bill to reform eminent domain and prohibit the use of it for either private development or to increase tax revenue. The Dispatch called McDaniel “the most vocal advocate” for the bill’s passage. An outraged Barbour called the young senator into his office and, according to McDaniel, “cursed me out good” but he would not be cowed and his bill passed overwhelmingly in both houses of the legislature. But Barbour vetoed the bill, all to the praise of big business.
The State House of Representatives voted to override the veto but the Senate was different story. Barbour went to work on many of the members, convincing 11 Democrats and 11 Republicans to oppose the override. This seemed to be a central theme in Barbour’s governorship, the use of the state senate as a protective force. According to Jere Nash and Andy Taggart, in their book Mississippi Politics, during the Barbour administration, “on virtually all central issues, the Senate became an extension of the governor’s office.”
To this point, McDaniel agreed. “There had never been an issue where Mississippians had been so uniformly aligned and against Haley Barbour than eminent domain, and the Senate still voted to uphold his veto. That’s mindboggling, and goes to show the kind of power he held over the body. And I think that’s one of the major problems with politics today, is you don’t have representative government anymore. Whether it’s John Boehner dictating to members of Congress how they vote or whether it’s Haley Barbour dictating to Mississippi state senators. It’s not representative democracy; it’s really nothing more than an oligarchy controlled by a handful of very strong men.”
And the Governor tried to run it just that way, and for the most part was successful. Yet McDaniel was always a thorn in his side and his pain would only grow worse, as did that of the business interest. “There’s simply no justification for what he was attempting to do,” Senator McDaniel told me. “Haley wanted to reward his machine, his rich contributors with the ability to take property from hard working Mississippians and give it to them because they can use the property better than the average, hardworking Mississippian can use it. And he basically turned his back on the Constitution in doing so. I made it clear that I wasn’t going to walk down that path with him, and at that point he became very, very aggressive. And he could be aggressive, not just with me but he was aggressive with a lot of people in the Senate and most of the senators folded at the time.”
But McDaniel and other conservative Senators smelled out what Barbour was really up to. “They were very deceptive in the way they attempted to gut the bill that we had worked so hard to create reforming the eminent domain abuse. We created a short bill that said precisely what the Constitution used to say prior to the Kelo decision, in that you had to have a real public use before you could take private property.” Barbour, though, is very shrewd and he knew it was very popular throughout the state, so he didn’t try to kill the bill; he attempted to amend it, which would have the effect of watering it down, so he could them claim he passed eminent domain reform.
“The amendment that he proposed,” McDaniel continued, “was so encompassing that it gutted the original intent of the bill. That’s how they play the game. He was going to claim to the people of Mississippi that he reformed eminent domain, but in fact that amendment gutted every part of the bill’s intent. We caught on to it and we beat him and we passed the original bill in its original form. And he vetoed it. He was willing to lay it all on the line for his contributors. He was willing to lay it all on the line for the rich, wealthy, elites that needed this power and he did.”
Fortunately for the people of Mississippi, Barbour’s veto didn’t end the argument. Using the process of ballot initiative, the people, with McDaniel helping to lead of the movement, rose up against Governor Barbour’s cronyism by placing a constitutional amendment on the state ballot in November 2011. Nearly 75 percent of Mississippians said no to Haley Barbour’s eminent domain power grab and yes to the reforms. The fight over eminent domain was a major blow to Barbour’s enterprise, and definitively proved, once and for all, that McDaniel would not be party to corruption and abuse.
“With the eminent domain fight, I broke away from the party,” McDaniel told me. “Prior to that fight I think they saw me as one of them to a certain extent, but once they saw that I was willing to buck the system, and they saw that I wasn’t going to violate my principles or the Constitution, based on what they believed, then I think some distance was driven. There was a huge wedge at that point between me and Haley Barbour, and it’s one that to this day has still not been corrected.”
The important story behind eminent domain reform is one every Mississippian needs to hear. It exposes the real corruption of state government but also showcases the fighters we have in Jackson, like Senator Chris McDaniel. He could have cowed to Haley Barbour. He could have turned the episode into a political opportunity for himself by sliding up close to Barbour and riding his coattails for future advancement. But he didn’t. He stood up for what’s right and helped save the property rights of all Mississippians.