VERONA – Bobby Goff remembers ordering two cat legs the day after a confused feline landed in the deep fryer as the employees were trying to chase him out of the Hardee’s here in this Lee County community that connects to the southern border of Tupelo.
He said the manager did not see the humor in his comments.
The cat survived the ordeal and was named Hardee by the veterinarian who administered treatment. Ten years after the cat incident, Goff, age 83, still can be found at the Verona Hardee’s where he eats, drinks coffee, socializes and opines.
“We talk politics, community stuff and families,” said Nathan Goff, a nephew of Bobby’s.
The perception from the Goff’s table at Hardee’s is that the state, nation and Lee County are doing reasonably well, though they say the city of Verona, which is struggling with crime and other issues, is not.
It is clear that on Nov. 6 the men at this table at Hardee’s will be voting for candidates who support President Donald Trump and can help him with his agenda. According to a NBC News/Marist poll, 54 percent of Mississippians prefer electing candidates who would help Trump achieve his agenda.
At Hardee’s, Leon Vilhauer, a Washington state transplant who worked for Boeing for 33 years before moving to Verona so his wife could be closer to her family, said he did not support Trump when he first ran for president but now has his full support.
“Think about what he could do if they left him alone,” echoed Nathan Goff. These men, mostly retired workers from Northeast Mississippi factories, are upset with what they believe was unfair treatment U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh received during his confirmation hearing. Nathan Goff compares Kavanaugh to the persecution of Jesus Christ.
“Knowing how they did him, I don’t know if I could vote for another Democrat,” he said.
Mississippi Today has been traveling the state talking to people about the upcoming federal elections and about the issues important to them and their communities. Lee County is in the center of what at one time, like most of Mississippi, was a solid Democratic area. And indeed, loyalties to the Democratic Party among white voters – a higher percentage of the total in much of northeast Mississippi than in the state as a whole – lasted longer than in many other areas of the state.
Until two elections ago, white Democrats from Northeast Mississippi had an inordinate amount of state legislative power, including holding the House speakership for 24 consecutive years.
Now most of those white legislative Democrats, though not all, are gone, either through election defeats or retirement.
But up the road from Verona, Barbara Fleishhacker, owner of the Main Attraction, a vintage clothing store located in a vibrant downtown Tupelo since 1988, says she is not enamored with the current Republican Party.
“I consider myself in the middle,” she said, sitting in the midst of her fall inventory. “I don’t want to pour paint on somebody I disagree with or cause havoc, but I do believe some things have to change and other viewpoints should be heard.”
She cites the legislation passed in 2016 by the Mississippi Legislature designed to allow governmental entities and businesses not to provide services to same sex couples as something she opposes.
And she added, “I feel that if we are not careful we will not have a good public education system anymore.”
As someone in her mid 50s, Fleishhacker said she is concerned about health care and Social Security. On the local level, she said Tupelo has much to be proud of but expressed concern about the homeless population, which she pinpointed as 58 individuals currently based on information she gleaned through a program that works with the homeless in Lee County.
Ricky Sanderford, an AT&T employee, said, “I feel pretty good about the region – economically, socially. I have lived here most of my life. I don’t remember it being as good at least economically.”
Walking into a downtown store on a rainy and overcast day, Pam Reddout agrees that Tupelo is thriving, “but we have some issues. People need to come together to work to make sure our growth reaches everyone and not just certain segments of the population.”
In 1934, George McLean, a liberal academic, used money from his wife’s family to purchase “a bankrupt newspaper from a bankrupt bank” in Tupelo, the county seat for Lee, which at the time was identified as the poorest county in the nation.
McLean used his perch at the Daily Journal to work to build not only Lee County, but northeast Mississippi. He and other community leaders traveled to Chicago to recruit manufacturer Morris Futorian to build a furniture plant in the area. That plant grew into multiple furniture manufacturing plants that became the backbone of the area’s economy. (Disclosure: Reporter Bobby Harrison is a former employee of the Daily Journal)
It could be argued that the Toyota manufacturing plant, located just west of Tupelo in Blue Springs, is now the crown jewel of the area’s manufacturing base.
The work by McLean and other community leaders in northeast Mississippi has been praised statewide, even nationally, for helping the area progress. But work remains.
“Northeast Mississippi has had great leadership that has worked to improve the area,” said Lewis Whitfield, senior vice president of CREATE, a nonprofit to which the McLeans left ownership of the Daily Journal with the mission to work to improve the quality of life of the area.
“We have pockets like Oxford and Tupelo and a few others that have done really well. But we have rural areas that are not doing as well.”
Whitfield, a former bank president, said surprisingly many areas of northeast Mississippi trail the rest of the state in terms of educational attainment and per capita income. According to U.S. Census Bureau, Tupelo’s per capita income for 2017 of $27,272 annually was higher than the state average of $23,121, but among the state’s 10 most populous counties was lower than Madison, Rankin, DeSoto and Lauderdale. Madison was the highest at $37,133 per year. Most northeast Mississippi counties would have lower per capita incomes than Lee, the hub of the region.
CREATE considers 17 counties in north Mississippi, primarily on the eastern side of the state, as its service region.
Between 1990 and 2005, the area lost half of its manufacturing employment, but Whitfield said in recent years those jobs have started to return. A strong tourism industry built around Tupelo as the birthplace of Elvis Presley and North Mississippi Medical Center, the largest rural hospital in the nation, now boost the Lee County economy.
The region has deep roots with New Deal Democrats of the Great Depression era. After all, in the 1930s, New Deal Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt visited Tupelo, the nation’s first city to receive electricity through the federal Tennessee Valley Authority. Up the road from Tupelo in extreme Northeast Mississippi, Tishomingo State Park, on the edge of Appalachia, is considered perhaps the state’s most scenic state park. It was built through a federal works program in the midst of the Great Depression.
The legendary U.S. Rep. Jamie Whitten, a Democrat who served as House Appropriation chairman, represented the area in more modern times and helped the area with other federal programs, such as the Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway, that flows through northeast Mississippi. A massive public project, the Tenn-Tom was built to provide additional outlets for middle American manufacturing to the Gulf of Mexico.
The region is now much more Republican. It also is socially conservative, voting against lifting the constitutional ban on a state lottery in the early 1990s. And it also has a strong blue collar base, thanks to efforts of McLean and others to bring jobs to what was at the time one of the state’s poorer regions.
Morris Futorian, a German immigrant, is credited with mass producing upholstered furniture in the same ways Henry Ford did for cars. And much of his work was done in northeast Mississippi where, despite competition from overseas, furniture plants, both large and small, still dot the region.
In Pontotoc, along old state Highway 6, west of Tupelo, are two of the smaller plants. Both have hiring signs up in front of them. Malcolm Collins works in one of those smaller plants. He is from Illinois but has lived in the region since 2001 when his car broke down while traveling through the area.
“I decided to stay,” he said, saying he is registered to vote and plans to, though, he is not very political.
As far as a message to politicians: “I couldn’t say,” he said.
In the city of Pontotoc, Savannah Harris, with her daughter, 9-month-old Dallas Clara Washington, on her hip said she would tell politicians they need to address the crime and drug problem.
“I am a recovering addict myself,” said Harris, age 20. “This town is hard. There needs to be more for the average person to do.”
She said her child has helped to turn her life around. She wants to go to school to be a radiologic technician.
Back in Tupelo, E-baby Clipper Hands – he asks that his professional name be used as it appears on his barber stylist business card – also has been caught up in the crime scene in northeast Mississippi. But, as a barber stylist, he is making his way even though he cannot vote. He says he lost the right as a convicted felon.
E-baby Clipper Hands believes Mississippi spends too much time focusing on issues such as enforcing marijuana laws while the rest of the country is relaxing those laws.
He said, “If I could vote, I don’t know, I probably wouldn’t.” Before ushering a youngster who has just walked into his shop with his mother into his stylist chair, he said, “People say if you don’t vote, you shouldn’t have any say about it. But what if you do vote and nothing changes.”
Shopping in the mall not too far from where E-baby Clipper Hands does his craft is 72-year-old Betty Weeks, who describes herself as a hairdresser. She is not as disillusioned as Clipper Hands, but said at the retirement center where she works she is concerned about the cost of health care and other social services for her clients.
“The elderly have a hard time,” she said. As the conversation continues, she admits that a large chunk of her salary is going to help a relative who is working, going to school and dealing with diabetes. She said the relative can’t get health insurance because of a pre-existing condition.
When told that her relative might could garner insurance on the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act website at a cheaper rate where a pre-existing condition cannot be used to deny coverage, she said she was told that the insurance was no good. When told that about 65,000 Mississippians had insurance through the exchange, she perks up and begins asking questions about it.
Despite hardships, Weeks, a former Delta resident, said, “I think it (Tupelo) is a pretty good town. I think it has a lot to offer for both the young and old.”