15-minute Hobo Volunteer Fire Station speech captures life and convictions of former speaker

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Thomas Wells / Daily Journal

Former state Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, played key roles in some of the state’s most important legislation.

A speech at the Hobo Fire Station in rural Prentiss County sent reverberations throughout Mississippi’s political environment amid the 2003 elections.

In 2003 as Republican Haley Barbour waged the most modern campaign in the state’s history to upend incumbent Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, state Rep. Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, was speaking at an old-time political gathering organized by the Hobo Volunteer Fire Department as a fundraiser.

McCoy died recently at the North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo after suffering a stroke. He was 77. That roughly 15-minute Hobo Fire Station speech encapsulates the life and political philosophy of the populist from the foothills of Appalachia in northeast Mississippi. He was combative and was a gifted speechmaker who had a knack for turning a phrase.

Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, then a 25-year-old mayor of Nettleton and admitted political junkie, heard the speech on a Booneville radio station.

“It changed my political life,” he said recently.

Bobby Harrison

In 2003, McCoy, then the chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, was viewed as the front-runner to replace Tim Ford, another Prentiss Countian who was retiring, as House speaker. Republicans were trying to defeat McCoy in his bid for re-election to prevent his speakership. His opponent told Prentiss Countians McCoy was different back home with them than he was at the state’s Capitol.

On that day at the fire station, a solemn McCoy rose to speak, saying “I am the same Billy McCoy here as I am in Jackson… I have never minced words in Jackson. That is the reason I have been successful for you and I will not mince words at the Hobo Fire Station.”

He added, “The weak and the timid are eaten in Jackson, Mississippi. I am not weak, and I am not timid and you will never intimidate me by attacking my character. And when you say a man is different in his home county than he is in Jackson, you have attacked my character.”

McCoy went on to talk about his personal life and his farming operation with his son Sam. “We raise cattle. We raise hay. We raise red worms for a living. We dig in the dirt. We work hard.”

Pounding the podium, he proclaimed, “We haven’t changed much…I still go to Gaston Baptist Church – sit on the back row just as far as you can sit – always have (sat) back in the corner. I have a 1965 Ford tractor that has never been overhauled. Don’t change much. I eat at the same place at the table every night. You know what to expect of Billy McCoy.”

McCoy added, “I drive up and down the road, most of the time in an old blue Cutlass Oldsmobile. It has 345,000 miles on it.”

Later as speaker, the car was stolen, creating a news story.

It prompted one lobbyist to proclaim “the story is not that the speaker’s car was stolen but that the speaker was driving such an old car.”

At some point after that speech, the Barbour campaign conceded privately that McCoy would be re-elected to the House and indeed be elected speaker. During the eight years McCoy and Barbour served together – as speaker and as governor – the two often clashed but they maintained a respectful relationship.

Listen to Billy McCoy’s 2003 speech at the Hobo Fire Station:

Billy McCoy played key roles in more major pieces of legislation than perhaps any legislator of the past half of century. As vice chair of the House Transportation Committee in the 1980s, he and Chair John David Pennebaker crisscrossed the state helping to garner support for a plan to four-lane about 1,000 miles of Mississippi highways. Former Mississippi Economic Council President Blake Wilson has called the legislation one of the most important economic development bills of modern times.

McCoy also played key roles in other major economic development and education bills.  After Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, Barbour called a special session to consider legislation to allow casinos to rebuild 800 feet inland – a move opposed by religious groups. The proposal languished, neither the House nor Senate willing to take a vote, until McCoy stepped up and allowed a vote in the House. He was hailed as a hero in the Biloxi Sun Herald for his effort.

As speaker, McCoy, realizing black House members were the base of his support in the new partisan environment in Jackson, appointed a record number of African Americans to key committee chairs.

McCoy could burst out in tears talking about the plights of the poor. He also was – as he said – not weak and timid. He once knocked out a colleague. When he was asked about the fight in the Capitol, he quickly corrected the reporter, saying the confrontation was in the parking lot.

McCoy got sick – almost died – during his tenure as speaker. He returned to governing the House, but never was the same physically.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said McCoy returned to the House too soon after the strokes because of his passion for the issues he cared about.

“It could be argued he gave his life for public service,” Bryan said. “…He came back before he regained his health because he knew people in that building would perceive weakness. He was not going to be seen as weak” not at the Hobo Fire Station and certainly not in Jackson.