OXFORD — Too bad there aren’t more William Winters in state and national politics these days.
No other governor in modern Mississippi history received as many accolades upon his death as the former governor who died Friday at the age of 97.
In my view he deserves them all. Winter, who successfully ran for and was elected to the Legislature and four statewide offices, has been described as a “transformational figure” in state politics because of the sweeping educational reforms that he pushed through as governor in the 1980s and for his racial reconciliation efforts well into the 21st century.
He was more than a politician who enjoyed success but also, at times, lost with grace. He was a statesman and a gentleman who was not mean-spirited and vindictive.
“May the best man win” doesn’t always hold true in political races, and it is interesting to reflect on the two governors who defeated Winter in his first two runs at the office.
John Bell Williams and Cliff Finch weren’t bad governors. The state made progress during their administrations and moved forward peacefully on racial desegregation. But neither rise to the stature of Winter in Mississippi history, although they both defeated him in a governor’s race.
Williams was a U.S. congressman for 20 years, championing states’ rights and racial segregation.
By the time he ran for governor in 1967 as a “Mississippi Democrat,” he had been expelled from the National Democratic Party because, among other things, he had openly supported Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race.
The seven candidates in the Mississippi Democratic run for governor in 1967 included, along with Williams, former Gov. Ross Barnett, future governors Bill Waller and Winter, and Byron De La Beckwith, who later was convicted of assassinating civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
I recall a behind-the-scenes political operative at the time telling me that he and other influential people had pledged their support to Williams on the belief that, with his states’ rights credentials, Williams would be the best bet to beat Barnett, whom they considered an embarrassment because of his handling of the Meredith enrollment at Ole Miss.
Winter, who already had the reputation of being a “moderate,” tried to paint himself as an effective segregationist, but it didn’t work.
More surprising than Winter’s loss to Williams was the race he lost to Cliff Finch in 1975.
Finch, who grew up poor in Panola County before serving in the Army in World War II and eventually earning his GED and later a law degree from Ole Miss, captured the imagination of voters with his “working man’s campaign.” Among other things, he drove a bulldozer and bagged groceries on the campaign trail.
Finch did some good things, including bringing millions of dollars of federal money to the state and preventing the savings and loan industry from collapsing.
But after four years of rumors and gossip about Finch’s marital problems and alleged sexual misbehavior, the public was more welcoming to the genteel Winter, who was elected governor in 1979.
Another Winter political defeat — which actually turned out to his benefit — was as a young state representative when he challenged veteran House Speaker Walter Sillers.
Winter thought he had the backing of Gov. J.P. Coleman, but Coleman, after an agreement with Sillers on his legislative program, withdrew his support.
As a consolation, though, Coleman appointed Winter state tax collector after the death of Nellah Massey Bailey, who held the office.
The duty of the tax collector, who worked on a commission basis, was to collect taxes on illegal liquor, and it probably was the highest paid office in the state.
The appointment helped Winter financially and also advanced his career in state politics. He successfully ran for the office in 1959 and was the key in having the office abolished and absorbed into another state agency.
He was then elected state treasurer and later served as lieutenant governor.
The current governor, Tate Reeves, correctly noted that Winter “truly loved this state and his country. And the people of Mississippi loved him back.”
• Charles M. Dunagin is the retired editor and publisher of the Enterprise-Journal in McComb. He lives in Oxford.