Wednesday, August 4, 2004
With his stiff blue collar and black-rimmed glasses, state Rep. Randy "Bubba" Pierce looks and smiles just like a politician. When we spotted him at the Neshoba County Fair, he was standing inside a horseshoe of similarly dressed men, addressing all of them at once. They seemed to be entranced by his words. Later, he said, "I speak impromptu, from the heart. I don't script myself. I like to talk to people, not speak at them." He has not written a speech so far in his political career, he said, including the one he gave that morning at the Fair.
"I don't have a stoplight in my district," Pierce said when we asked whether he visited local colleges to talk to students, "much less a university. We have a junior college—and I've been there." Pierce, an affable, dark-haired Democrat from Leakesville, said that his district contains "the greatest people in the world."
Pierce, 39, was elected in 1999; he served his first term in 2000. The graduate of Southern Miss and Ole Miss law school chairs the House Education Committee. As a young representative and a man with a unique educational history, Pierce seems easy and comfortable talking with young people. We approached Pierce at the Fair with Hattiesburg Day in full force, political networking all around. Amid the activity, he sat with us, two teenagers, on a bench discussing his life.
He and his wife, Gayla, started out as a high school romance. They got married when she was 16 and he was 18, a daughter on the way. They did not have a solid base for educating themselves. When their second child came, they decided they had to get an education. They made a deal that she would help him get through college, and right after he finished, he would help her. Pierce went to college from 1984 to 1988, Gayla went to college, studying to be a teacher from 1988 to 1992, and then Pierce went to law school from 1992 to 1995.
"Everyone makes mistakes; you can move on from them," he said with a smile that changed from political to human during the course of our discussion. He recalled his difficult high school experiences and the perils of starting out as a young adult. "In high school my teachers would've never dreamed I'd be chairman of education," he said.
"Politicians can be boring, but what they do does affect young people. When I speak at a school I tell them that we set the number of days you go to school, and every student cares about that," he exclaimed, with vivid hand motions. He hopes that these children will realize at an early age that what they think and how they vote affects their lives. He added: "Kids can cause you to stop in your tracks when they notice something. Young voters can pick out a phony better than anybody."
Pierce doesn't pretend to have all the answers: "None of us do an adequate job of energizing young voters. A lot of politicians assume kids will vote however their parents do. We need to encourage kids to be inquisitive and form their own opinions."
From teen pregnancy, many menial jobs and a long, hard run to get an education, the small-town guy, whose youthful ambitions were once limited to getting to the next concert and cutting class for work, is now a legislative leader, lawyer, CPA, pastor, family man and, many believe, a likely candidate for statewide office in 2007.
Fresh out of college, Pierce wrote former Gov. William Winter a letter inviting him to lunch. Winter accepted, and Pierce told him of his ambitions to run for state auditor. Winter suggested he move home and run for representative. Pierce still wanted to try the auditor route, but he did eventually move home. Winter's words resonated when he discovered that his local representative had voted against a plan to improve public education. "William Winter is a rare commodity, a statesman; he's willing to be progressive and embrace change," Pierce said. When asked whether Winter would be a good example of a politician who did his part to energize young voters, Pierce replied, "Yes, he's one of the best examples I can think of.
"No matter where I am going in politics, I want to remain myself. You've got to go below the surface and get to someone's heart. That is all that matters," he added. "It is my job as a politician to help those who can't help me, not just those who can."
He finished our conversation with a firm handshake and a warm smile. Then he answered the tough question: "There's a better chance that I will be running for a state office than for re-election to this current office in 2007—maybe governor, maybe lieutenant governor."
As Pierce stood up, still making firm eye contact with us, he said, "You can always capture your dreams."