Wednesday, March 26, 2014 1:00 AM
When writing a novel about Mississippi politics, it helps to have some first-hand experience. The author of the forthcoming "Magnolia Mud" currently sits on the Mississippi Supreme Court. Prior to his election to the high court, back when Judge Randy Pierce was "Bubba" Pierce, he watched political intrigue and machinations as a legislator from Greene County.
Young, sharp and (most importantly in Mississippi) conservative, many hopes of the state Democratic Party were vested in Pierce. Democrats praised their Chairman of the House Education Committee and when Speaker of the House Billy McCoy (D-Rienzi) was unable, due to health reasons, to speak at the Neshoba County Fair, Pierce took his place. He was a rising star among Democrats and there was serious talk that he might be their best challenger against Governor Haley Barbour's reelection. But that was before Hurricane Katrina and Barbour's leadership during that crisis. And that was before a chancery court vacancy in Pierce's home county opened up, and Barbour appointed him to the judiciary.
In a column reflecting on Pierce's political journey, Marty Wiseman wrote, "By 2003, more than a few people were predicting an early run for lieutenant governor, or even governor, for the rising young Democratic Party star...I came away believing that if ever there was a fresh face to lead the Democratic Party in Mississippi out of the political wilderness, that surely this was it." Following Barbour's appointment, Wiseman wrote, "the single most notable rising star of the Democratic Party, the person who would perhaps play that galvanizing role for the many Democratic Party factions, was diverted to the judiciary." Liberal columnist Bill Minor, who had lauded praise on Pierce, reversed course and became a critic.
In 2008, Pierce challenged incumbent Supreme Court Judge Oliver Diaz. Pierce, the former Democratic legislator, was endorsed by the Mississippi Republican Party. Diaz, the former Republican legislator, was backed by the trial lawyers. Pierce won with 58.1 percent.
Those interested in Mississippi politics would surely devour a behind-the-scenes book of Pierce's own career, but currently folks will have to be satisfied instead with his books of fiction. And if you follow Mississippi politics, "Magnolia Mud" is an enjoyable page turner.
The book tells the story of incumbent GOP Governor Lee Jones who is seeking reelection: popular and charismatic with an eye on the presidency. He isn't Haley Barbour; he is more like a Republican Cliff Finch. Jones is a former district attorney from the Pine Belt, assisted by his best friend and chief-of-staff Hugh Ready. The only thing standing between Jones, a second term, and perhaps the White House is Democratic Lieutenant Governor Anna Scott. She isn't Amy Tuck or Evelyn Gandy; she is more like, well, nothing we've seen in Mississippi politics. But she certainly has the Tuck good-ol'-boy appeal .
Pierce sprinkles his story with real political settings from the State of the State Address, to The Good Ole Boys Picnic in Lafayette County, to the Fourth of July at Jacinto Courthouse, to the Neshoba County Fair where the red dirt turns to a political mud fight following the speeches of Scott and Jones.
Everything you want in a juicy campaign, you can find in the pages of this book: paid political hacks, shadowy operatives, out-of-state money, scandal and lies. But Pierce also shares the human side of elected officials and the toil on the families and even the children (the young daughters of Jones and Scott become best friends at school).
Some of the characters are quite familiar and clearly fashioned from their real world counterparts. Most of the key players seem to be amalgamations reflecting certain archetypes of elected officials we know, or think we know. Perhaps that is one of the greatest strengths of Pierce's writing: it is believable. We think we know the characters, even when we don't. Pierce also writes with a very straightforward, fact filled exposition: likely a trait resulting from hours upon hours of writing Court decisions. Because most of us hear our political news from the media, Pierce's style makes the plot reveals even more relatable to the reader.
This is Pierce's second novel. His first, "Pain Unforgiven" tells the story of Grant Hicks, who leaves his partnership at an Atlanta law firm to return to his hometown in Greene County to confront the anguish and mystery surrounding the death of his father, the sins of a town and the fatal illness of an old friend. Pierce currently is working on a follow-up to that book.
Pierce launches "Magnolia Mud" with events at Lemuria in Jackson on April 1 and Square Books in Oxford on April 2. If you like Mississippi politics, but want a break with some enjoyable fictional politics, pick up a copy and ask "Bubba" to sign it for you.
Brian Perry is a columnist for the Madison County Journal and a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.