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Kirk Fordice, 70; Mississippi's First Republican Governor in a Century

September 08, 2004|From Associated Press

Former Gov. Kirk Fordice, a hard-nosed, no-nonsense businessman who became Mississippi's first Republican governor in more than 100 years, died Tuesday of leukemia at a hospital in Jackson, Miss. He was 70.

A self-made millionaire through his Fordice Construction Co., Fordice upset incumbent Democrat Ray Mabus in 1991 to become Mississippi's first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

Fordice served as governor from 1992-2000, becoming the first Mississippi chief executive to succeed himself. Until 1987, Mississippi governors could serve only one term.

Despite controversies over his private life and his comments on race and other issues, the silver-haired grandfather only seemed to grow more popular with conservative Mississippians, even though his agenda of tax cuts, school choice and term limits stalled in the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

He was successful in pushing for spending restraints, tougher sentencing laws and more prisons.

His most raucous debates were over racial issues. Just a few days after his swearing in, he threatened to call out the National Guard if the state was ordered to spend more money on its three historically black colleges.

In 1994, black lawmakers, angered by Fordice's push for term limits, walked out on his state-of-the-state address.

Two years later, there was a controversy when he tried to push the Senate to confirm four white men to the board overseeing the state's higher education system.

After a court battle and two rejections by the state Senate, Fordice backed down and made four new picks, including a black man and a white woman.

But he argued that racial issues were overshadowed by economic ones. "Mississippi doesn't do race anymore," he said in his 1996 inaugural speech after winning a second term.

"The 1960s are over .... We will acknowledge our history, but we will not let it determine our future. The only race that we're concerned with is the race for more jobs, for better schools, for safer neighborhoods and the race for lower taxes," he said.

His private life made headlines when his 40-year marriage was falling apart and he was seen with another woman, whom he later married and divorced.

Fordice had four children.

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