As Thad Cochran ages, a legacy – and speculation – grows

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This story is one in an occasional series by Mississippi Today about Mississippi newsmakers.

Bill Clark, CQ Roll Call via AP

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., leaves the Senate Republicans’ policy lunch in the Capitol on Oct. 24.

As Vice President Mike Pence and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell celebrated with Republican senators early Wednesday morning just after 51 Republicans voted to pass sweeping tax reform, Sen. Thad Cochran was already on his way home.

Ten minutes before the votes were tallied, Cochran stood near the back of the chamber, flanked by Mississippi’s junior senator Roger Wicker and legislative assistant Ty Mabry, and raised one finger in the air to signal to the clerk an affirmative vote.

After his vote was recorded, he shook Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s hand and exited the chamber with Mabry.

For any 80 year old, 12:30 a.m. is a late night. But for Cochran, who has fought several health ailments in recent weeks, there would be no celebrating with his colleagues.

Thad Cochran has good days, and Thad Cochran has bad days.

On the good days, he walks from his Capitol Hill home to his Dirksen Building office, plays the Kurtzmann baby grand in his office, or tells staffers stories from his earlier days in politics.

On the bad days, which are inherently more public, Cochran struggles to answer basic questions from reporters, gets lost in the winding halls of the U.S. Capitol and Senate office buildings, or votes aye instead of nay on an amendment that would compromise the work of his committee.

As one of the oldest members of the oldest U.S. Senate in history, Cochran’s health regularly makes national headlines as focus has narrowed this year on each Republican vote on key legislation.

Speculation has mounted recently — including a Politico report on Thursday — in Washington and Jackson that the senator could retire as early as January after a final 2018 budget is adopted. Leaders are debating more than ever how to weigh the senator’s health with his unique position to serve Mississippi through his current term, which ends in 2020.

Rogelio Solis, AP

U.S. Sens. Thad Cochran, left, and Trent Lott, both Republicans from Mississippi, confer as they wait the arrival of Air Force One in Gulfport on Aug. 28, 2006, as President Bush and his wife Laura Bush traveled to the Mississippi Gulf Coast for events marking the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

“Something Mississippians figured out a long time ago was to follow the money,” said Trent Lott, former Senate majority leader. “Being chairman of Appropriations is one of the most important chairmanships in Congress, and he’s done so much good by Mississippi.”

“I hope he stays as long as he possibly can,” Lott said in a telephone interview with Mississippi Today.

Cochran,  first elected to the Senate in 1978 and now the longest serving current member of Congress, carries on a tradition of Mississippians serving record tenures in the upper chamber. Three senators from the Magnolia State – John Stennis, Jim Eastland and Cochran – are among the 16 longest-serving senators in U.S. history.

And Mississippi, which relies more on federal dollars than any other state in the nation, has a long record of outsized influence over federal spending. Cochran served as Appropriations chairman from 2005-2007 and has served presently since 2015. Stennis served as chairman between 1987-1989. In the House, Rep. Jamie Whitten served as chairman of House Appropriations for a remarkable 14 years from 1979-1993.

Cochran’s ability to direct billions in federal funding to Mississippi is, at the moment, overshadowed by health concerns, which garnered national headlines again this week as Republican leaders scrambled to whip and keep yea votes on sweeping tax reform.

Two urinary tract infections that delayed a return trip to Washington following the fall recess – sparking speculation over whether Cochran would be around to vote on repealing the Affordable Care Act – have cleared up, his staff says.

But last week, the senator missed six judicial nomination votes because his face was left swollen and bruised following what his staff called a routine procedure to remove a non-melanoma lesion from his nose. The absence led to questions about whether the senator was healthy enough to vote for tax reform this week.

After both recent scares, through questions raised by reporters and pundits, Cochran cast his votes in the Senate chamber for the big votes that mattered.

“He’s certainly not 30 anymore, but I think he could hold his ground with any other 80 year old,” said Brad White, Cochran’s chief of staff. “I think people would be very surprised.”

Bill Clark, CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., is seen prior to a Senate Appropriations subcommittee meeting in June.

On a broad scale, however, Mississippians have not heard directly from their senator in years. Cochran has not allowed a scheduled interview with press since 2014, when he almost lost his seat to Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel.

During that campaign, even in 2014, several national and statewide outlets published stories highlighting the senator’s health, and McDaniel weaponized concerns over Cochran’s age and heath.

This week, amid the new speculation of early retirement, McDaniel declined to discuss whether Cochran should step down.

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville

“I don’t want to speculate on that only because I don’t know the actual significance of his problem, if there is any,” McDaniel said. “My only concern is that he’s happy and healthy.”

The senator, through his staff, declined several opportunities to meet with a Mississippi Today reporter in Washington and Mississippi in recent weeks, chalking it up to a distrust of press since the 2014 race.

Once a regular jogger and tennis player, Cochran is no longer seen alone in public. Mabry, the legislative assistant, accompanies the senator to the chamber and the Appropriations committee room in Dirksen and is often seen whispering in his ear before votes. Mabry also sits with Cochran in committee meetings.

Numerous senators and Republican staffers told Politico on Thursday that Sen. Richard Shelby, the vice chairman of Appropriations, is effectively serving as chairman. Cochran’s staff insists he is still actively addressing committee business.

Asked for a response to that article, Cochran spokesman Chris Gallegos said, “Senator Cochran has not made any statements regarding leaving office or relinquishing his responsibilities with the Appropriations committee.  He continues to enjoy his work for Mississippi and the nation.”

A Mississippi Today reporter observed the senator in the Senate chamber in early December. Cochran walked into the chamber with Mabry to cast a vote on the evening of Dec. 7, and greeted a couple colleagues briefly before leaving.

Early Wednesday morning, just before the vote for final passage of the tax bill, Cochran walked down to the well to cast a preliminary vote on the tax bill. Just after casting that vote, Cochran turned around and looked at Mabry, who nodded and led the senator to the back of the chamber to await the final vote on the tax cut.

Staffers for Cochran in October fumed over a Politico piece that labeled the senator as “frail and disoriented” the day after he returned to Washington following the fall recess.

Five days after that article published, White took to statewide conservative radio to “set the record straight,” saying that Cochran has not mentioned retirement and that “we’re getting as much done with a sick Thad Cochran as we could with any other junior senator.”

Through the health criticism, Cochran’s staff has struggled to keep his ongoing work and legacy in the spotlight.

“It’s upsetting. It’s disappointing,” Mabry said of the Politico piece. “Especially considering the fact that Sen. Cochran came back up here, at the request of the President of the United States, for some votes. He was still ill, but he chose to come up here anyways, and he did it to serve Mississippi and the nation.”

The senator for years has overseen hundreds of billions in spending on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and he has steered much of that to Mississippi.

Lott, who worked in tandem with Cochran in the mid-2000s as a member of the Senate Finance committee, said that though spending earmarks have been eliminated, Cochran is still able to use his position to insert wording in spending bills that still directly benefit Mississippi.

Cochran’s use of earmarks or directed funding cannot be accurately measured, but most believe tens of billions is a fair determination. Some have labeled him the “King of Pork,” a moniker used against him by McDaniel’s surrogates in 2014.

U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Pearl

“Senator Cochran serving as chairman of Appropriations – you can’t really put into terms what that means for Mississippi,” U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper told Mississippi Today. “He’s done more to help this state than anyone I know, and he’s been there for Mississippi every time he’s been called on.”

That legacy has forged Thad Cochran namesakes for at least a dozen buildings across the state, including many of the state’s public universities and colleges. A 2008 study found that both Mississippi State University and University of Mississippi received more earmarks than any other universities in the country.

Many leaders on both sides of the aisle have pointed to Cochran’s work following Hurricane Katrina to get Mississippi much-needed relief funds to begin rebuilding. His work earned him another nickname — “The Quiet Persuader” — from TIME magazine after he led efforts to get $29 billion to the Gulf Coast region following the storm.

Focusing on the Mississippi Delta, considered the nation’s poorest region by most standards, Cochran secured at least $46 million in funding for the new federal courthouse in Greenville. The senator has helped direct tens of millions to the Delta Health Alliance, including a $30 million federal grant last year, and has directed funding to the Delta Chronic Disease Assessment program, the Minority Health program, and the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Cochran also serves as vice chairman of the Senate Agriculture committee, aiming to help Mississippi farmers. Just last year, the senator directed $15.1 million to support research conducted at Mississippi State University, the University of Mississippi and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service center in Stoneville.

A Department of Agriculture program that brings farmers from developing countries each year to America to learn skills bears Cochran’s name after he developed the idea in the early 1980s.

This year, Cochran is leading an effort to increase federal funding from $5 million to $15 million in the Farm to School program, which aims to increase the availability of locally-produced foods in school cafeterias. Several Mississippi school districts utilize the program.

He has championed several civil rights causes. He authored legislation to add the Medgar Evers home to the National Park Service, secured nearly $1 million for the restoration of the historic Medgar Evers NAACP office on Farish Street in Jackson, and requested that President Obama posthumously award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Evers.

He was the lead Republican co-sponsor of a 2005 amendment to the Interior Appropriations bill that provided $10 million to catalyze the funding of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National Mall.

Cochran’s staff worked with officials from the newly opened Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, and the senator helped land a $100,000 grant for the Department of Archives and History to implement a curriculum in partnership with the museum.

Cochran is respected on both sides of the aisle in Washington, highlighted, perhaps, by his close relationship with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont.

Leahy, who chairs the Senate Agriculture committee, considers Cochran his closest friend in the Senate, hosting Cochran at his Vermont home several times and being hosted by Cochran in Mississippi.

Desmond Boylan, AP

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., gives a press conference alongside Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., at the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba, on Feb. 22, 2017.

The longest currently serving senator, Leahy said he and Cochran still joke about a trip they took to Montpelier together during a cold snap — 25 below zero, or as Leahy said: “cold, even by Vermont standards.”

When the two men stepped off the airplane, Cochran, who grew up in north Mississippi’s mild winters, looked at Leahy with a straight face and asked, “Are we going to die?”

The unlikely friendship that has been forged by their ability to work together, across party lines, is respected by many who follow Congress. In the nearly four decades the two have worked together, Leahy said not much has changed about Cochran, though he noted: “We’re both getting older. We don’t run up the stairs quite as fast.”

“On the rare occasions we have different positions on something, there’s never any rancor,” Leahy said. “He always keeps his word. I know he’ll keep his word to me, he knows I’ll keep my word to him. Unfortunately, some in both parties are forgetting that.”

As to Cochran’s legacy, Leahy notes: “He works so hard for the people in Mississippi and the rest of the country. A lot of children get fed in Mississippi and Vermont because of the work of Thad. I don’t think many people truly understand how much he does.”

What happens if Sen. Thad Cochran retires?