Mississippi Loses Political Pioneer | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Mississippi Loses Political Pioneer

Former Lt. Gov. Evelyn Gandy, 87, died Dec. 23 of complications of progressive supranuclear palsy, costing Mississippi one of its greatest political trailblazers. Gandy was the first woman in Mississippi—and the only one so far—elected to three statewide offices and one legislative position.

Gandy graduated from the University of Mississippi School of Law in 1947, the only woman in her class. She opened a law practice the same year, but after being elected to the House, she closed the business. Her campaigning didn't stop there. Gandy won election as state treasurer in 1960, while the rumblings of the Civil Rights Movement were being heard around the state. She moved on from there, running for and winning the office of insurance commissioner in 1972 as the Vietnam War winded down to an embarrassing close. Confident, Gandy pursued and won the office of lieutenant governor in 1976, the same year the nation celebrated its 200th birthday.

"She and I, we were friends during our whole adult life," said former Gov. William Winter, who beat Gandy for the governor's office in the 1979 run-off. "I was at Ole Miss when she was in law school. Then she and I were both elected to the Legislature in 1947. It was the first election after the war (WWII), and we had a lot of new members in the Legislature. She began impressing all of us with her leadership capacity early on." Winter attributed Gandy's likability and success to her "impeccable honesty and integrity and a feeling concern for people, particularly for less fortunate people."

Gandy, who never married, followed in the footsteps of Sen. Theo Bilbo, a mentor who also made a name for himself supporting farmers and poor Mississippians. Her mindfulness toward the middle class and poor made Gandy a champion for public schools. As lieutenant governor, Gandy voted to reform 16th-section land legislation giving public schools millions of new dollars, a move that did not endear her to some special-interest groups, Winter said.

"She never let any special interest control her, and you don't say that about a lot of politicians," Winter said. "If you look at Evelyn Gandy you would not have any skepticism about the political system. It wasn't that she railed against lobbyists—she simply stood for policies that served people of lesser means without railing against the so-called special interests."

Gandy's arrival pitted her against Sen. Bill Burgin, 20-year chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who was indicted and convicted on federal charges of influence peddling. Burgin was indicted in late 1978, and Gandy immediately stripped him of his committee chairmanship, which was unprecedented in the state's legislative history.

Mississippi author and political insider Jere Nash said Gandy ushered in a new era following the indictments.

"She helped usher out the era Bill Burgin and (Senate Finance Chairman) Ellis Bodron, two people who had dominated politics for so long, and ushered in a group of reform-minded senators like Carroll Ingram and John Corlew … literally, it was because of the work she did from 1976 to 1979 that set the stage for William Winter to come in and pass education reform over the next four years," Nash said, explaining that legislators like Burgin managed to retain power as appropriations committee chairman by racking up "one favor after another."

Corlew, a Jackson attorney formally of Pascagoula, said Gandy's legislative reform resulted in the formation of a new division of state government dedicated to ethics.

"Gandy was the catalyst for the ethics legislation that came out of the Judiciary A Committee. It established the Mississippi Ethics Commission, which we had not had previously in Mississippi, and established standards of conduct for public officials regarding conflicts of issues. It provided a mechanism by which any citizen could complain about a public official with respect to violating the public trust," Corlew said.

Gandy installed Ingram as chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary A Committee, which soon produced Gandy's ethics-reform legislation. Ingram and Gandy remained friends years later, working together as law partners in Hattiesburg at the time of Gandy's death.

Winter said he doubted Gandy had many enemies.

"You can't generalize where she was in terms of people who may have opposed her. I do not think she had a single political enemy. She could be tough when she needed to be, but she did not mark people or organizations as targets," Winter said.

"Even when we ran for the same office, we were running for the office, not running against each other."

Support our reporting -- Follow the MFP.