The 2011 legislative session begins Jan. 4, and it's likely to be exceptionally loud, complicated and messy. Mississippi faces an unusual alignment of unfavorable omens: a budget crisis, a national climate favoring anti-immigrant sentiment, a contentious statewide election year and an inexplicably influential tea-party movement with which conservative elements in both parties have fallen madly in love.
Let's start with the tea-party movement. When the 112th U.S. Congress convenes, Mississippi will shift from a 75 percent Democratic House delegation to a 75 percent Republican House delegation due to the defeats of District 1's Rep. Travis Childers and District 4's Rep. Gene Taylor. The only Democrat representing Mississippi in Congress will be District 2's Rep. Bennie Thompson, whose influence in the House has been substantially reduced by the election of a Republican majority.
These kinds of party shifts are not uncommon during the first term of a new presidential administration, and they usually favor the party that opposes the president, but in this case the broadcast-media punditry, for whatever reason, has decided to attribute these ordinary midterm opposition-party gains to the influence of national conservative organizations that use the phrase "tea party"—the Tea Party Coalition, the Tea Party Express, the Tea Party Nation, and so forth. These organizations came about in protest against the Bush-Obama recessionary bailouts and, later, united against Democratic health-care reform policies.
In Mississippi, the tea-party movement has taken on a more Confederate tone. While the Mississippi Tea Party's mission statement somewhat less-than-reassuringly states that the organization does not seek a "war within the states," the phrase "state's rights" has been brought back into the Mississippi political mainstream in some innovative and bizarre ways.
Tea party representatives met with Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant in October, for example, to suggest that the state establish a commission to defend Mississippi's sovereignty. While tea-party leaders described this as an "Un-American Activities Committee" in the tradition of 1950s communism-obsessed Sen. Joe McCarthy, the last state agency created under this mandate—the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission—was even worse, investigating the Civil Rights Movement and secretly punishing those associated with it. While the impact of the tea-party movement on the legislative session is difficult to predict, sanity and restraint are unlikely to be among its priorities.
For his part, Phil Bryant has made little secret of the fact that he plans to run for governor in November when Haley Barbour is term-limited out. Those of you who remember the 2007 statewide-election cycle may recall that while Barbour mostly steered clear of hot-button social issues, Bryant made them his campaign's bread and butter. Since he's the de-facto leader of the Mississippi State Senate right now, and may face a difficult Republican primary process, he's well situated to grandstand on any number of frightening policy proposals in an effort to demonize progressives in the Mississippi State House and increase his own profile. Bryant has certainly made an effort to do so with respect to the anti-birth control Personhood Amendment and the Voter ID Amendment, both of which are scheduled to be on the ballot in November.
And if there's one issue where Bryant excels at pandering, it's immigration. In a political climate where Arizona's SB 1070 brazenly makes racial profiling the law of the land, Bryant—who rose in Republican ranks largely on the basis of a blistering 2006 state auditor's piece in which he (inaccurately) speculated that undocumented immigrants were to blame for budget losses—has promised to back legislation that would similarly profile Latinos in Mississippi. Competing groups of conservative legislators have vowed to bring Arizona-style legislation to a vote.
Statewide elections can have different effects on legislators—sometimes they inspire grandstanding, at other times timidity—but it's clear that anti-immigrant legislation will be part of the 2011 session.
The issue of the budget will lurk in the background of this legislative session. Last year, it almost inspired a proposal to eliminate the Mississippi University for Women and all but one of the state's historically black public colleges and universities. Similar draconian proposals could easily resurface this year, most of them likely targeting public education, public health and other constituent services that primarily benefit low-income Mississippians.
That's the bad news.
The good news is that in statewide politics, and especially in an election year, the voices of constituents carry a great deal of weight. The reason last year's university merger proposal failed, for example, was almost certainly the public outrage it provoked. The success or failure of the legislative horrors I've described will depend, to a great extent, on us—our willingness to call our legislators, attend lobby days, and take other measures when we're called on to make our voices heard. The 2011 legislative session may, more than any other legislative session of modern times, give us the opportunity to decide what kind of state we're going to live in. That's an opportunity none of us should turn down.
Freelance writer Tom Head is a lifelong Jackson native. He has authored or co-authored 24 nonfiction books on a wide range of topics, writes about civil liberties for About.com and is a grassroots progressive activist.