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Strange Bedfellows in Miss. Politics

In the topsy-turvy world of Mississippi’s politics, the racially charged fight over Judge Charles Pickering’s nomination has turned foes into friends and enemies into allies.

Just last week the public relations firm founded by lobbyist Haley Barbour, the GOP candidate for Mississippi governor, began an ad campaign for the new group Friends of Judge Charles Pickering, promoting the views of none other than Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D), Barbour’s opponent on Nov. 4.

“We’re all interconnected,” quipped Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who’s represented the Gulf Coast for 30 years and has been close friends with Barbour and Pickering for several decades.

As Friends of Pickering debuted its campaign touting Musgrove’s support of the judge’s nomination for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Pickering’s son, Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.), premiered for the media a campaign-style video supporting his father. It features testimonials from black Democrats, trial lawyers and civil rights activists. The seven-minute video was moving enough that it brought tears to Lott’s eyes at a press conference Thursday, prompting him to walk off the podium, wipe his eyes and gather himself before stepping back into view of the cameras.

Who produced the video, free of cost, for Rep. Pickering? Scott Howell & Co., the media firm that the lawmaker used in his Member-versus-Member re-election battle last year against Ronnie Shows (D). Fueled by an infusion of more than $1.1 million from Pickering’s campaign account in the third quarter of 2002 alone, Scott Howell pounded Shows into submission, helping Pickering to a nearly 2-to-1 victory.

The manager of Pickering’s re-election campaign was Henry Barbour, the nephew of Haley Barbour who is now managing the Washington lobbyist’s gubernatorial campaign.

If that’s not confusing enough, another group that is closely linked to Barbour, the Committee for Justice, is gearing up for its own ad campaign in support of Pickering’s nomination, which should hit the Senate floor later this month. “We’re definitely going to do an ad of some sort,” said Sean Rushton, the committee’s executive director, suggesting his group’s campaign “may even be keying off the [Pickering] video.”

The nexus point for almost all entities in the fight to confirm Judge Pickering to a seat on the circuit court is 1275 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

That’s the home of Barbour, Griffith & Rogers, the lobbying firm Haley Barbour founded in 1997 after a successful stint as chairman of the Republican National Committee. As an offshoot, Barbour also formed a media firm, Policy Impact Communications, housed inside the lobbying firm’s office. His partner was Ed Gillespie, his former RNC deputy who has since followed in his mentor’s footsteps and is now a lobbyist-turned-RNC chairman.

Policy Impact is handling the media campaign for Friends of Judge Charles Pickering, a group of Mississippians that has pooled together some money on behalf of the judge’s confirmation fight. Aides at Policy Impact would not comment on who was funding the group or how much it has raised, and forwarded messages to the group did not receive a reply.

Rushton said “individual friends of the judge” approached him and Ed Rogers, Barbour’s lobbying partner who has been a GOP point man on the most recent judicial nomination fights, and asked for their help. “The committee helped pull the ad together,” said Rushton, who referred them to Policy Impact.

The Committee for Justice itself is practically an unofficial subsidiary of Barbour, Griffith & Rogers. Rogers and other members of his firm have been the most prominent financial backers of the Committee for Justice, which is officially chaired by C. Boyden Gray, who worked in the first Bush administration with Rogers.

As a nonprofit, the committee’s donors are not revealed. However, Rogers was on hand for a $10,000-a-head fundraiser at Gray’s home in February. In June, at a fundraising event featuring the president’s nephew, George P. Bush, the firm bought a sponsor’s table worth at least $2,000. In addition, Rogers and his wife, Edwina, personally bought a table for at least $2,000. And another counsel at the firm, Diane Allbaugh, and her husband, Joe Allbaugh, bought a table for at least $2,000.

Joe Allbaugh served as campaign manager for President Bush in 2000.

Pickering’s allies have so far rounded up 55 publicly committed votes for Pickering, five short of the 60 needed to break a potential filibuster.

Lott is now warning that a Pickering filibuster would lead to a dramatic backlash in Mississippi against Democrats on Capitol Hill, one that could lead to the ouster of Musgrove from his governor’s mansion.

“If the Democrats filibuster Pickering, it’ll defeat Ronnie Musgrove,” he said.

Which makes the promotion of Musgrove’s support for the judge — by Barbour’s PR firm, nonetheless — even more intriguing, a gambit that could boomerang back into Barbour’s political chin.

If Democrats don’t filibuster the nomination, Musgrove will have a clear road to claiming credit for the confirmation, something that would help his campaign in predominantly white rural areas.

In the ad campaign, which has appeared in Roll Call, Friends of Judge Charles Pickering reproduce a letter from Musgrove, with a headline blaring “STATE OF MISSISSIPPI OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR.” Signed by Musgrove and Mississippi’s four other statewide elected Democratic officials, Barbour’s opponent touts Pickering’s support in the 1960s for “the voting rights of African Americans, and for the equal protection of all,” as well as his community work in “integration and inclusion.”

That’s hardly the portrait of Pickering painted by the Senate’s Judiciary Democrats, who accused the judge of a history of racial insensitivity.

Lott professed no knowledge of who the judge’s “Friends” were but suggested there might “even be a few trial lawyers” in the group. The state’s most prominent trial lawyer, Dickie Scruggs, is the brother-in-law of Lott’s wife, Tricia, and a close friend of the former Majority Leader’s. On most political issues, however, the lawmaker and his trial lawyer brother-in-law are enemies, with Scruggs being a large financial backer of Mississippi Democrats and close ally of Capitol Hill Democrats such as Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), a senior Judiciary member.

But Scruggs has stood side by side with Lott in support of Judge Pickering, attending his hearing in February 2002 just weeks before the then-Democratically controlled panel rejected the nomination on a 10-9 vote — the mirror image of Thursday’s 10-9 vote in the now GOP-controlled committee in support of the judge.

Scruggs did not return calls to his office Friday regarding the new group and whether he or other trial lawyers are backing the effort.

Lott said the strange connections in the nomination fight begin and end in the key players’ similar backgrounds.

Both Pickerings — raised in the small town of Laurel — attended the University of Mississippi, affectionately known as Ole Miss. Lott and Scruggs grew up in Pascagoula and went on to Ole Miss for undergraduate and law school, where Barbour, a Yazoo City native, also earned his law degree.

Musgrove, who grew up in the far northern county of Panola, also went to Ole Miss.

“We’re all from the same towns and went to the same school,” Lott said.

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