Former Gov. Kirk Fordice, a hard-nosed, no-nonsense businessman who became Mississippi’s first Republican governor in more than 100 years, died Tuesday of leukemia. He was 70.
Fordice, who had battled prostate cancer while in office, confirmed in August that he had been diagnosed with a form of leukemia. He died at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.
A self-made millionaire through his Fordice Construction Co., Fordice upset incumbent Democrat Ray Mabus in 1991 to become Mississippi’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. Fordice served as governor from 1992-2000, becoming the first Mississippi governor to win re-election. Up until 1987, Mississippi governors could serve only one term.
Fordice’s image while governor was that of a loud, gruff and domineering politician who was successful in pushing for spending restraints, tougher sentencing laws and more prisons.
“Frankly I don’t miss being inside politics,” Fordice said in a 2001 interview with The Associated Press. “It has often been called an ugly, dirty game, and in many ways it is.”
Favorite of conservatives
Despite controversies over his comments on race and his private life, the silver-haired grandfather only seemed to grow more popular with conservative Mississippians even though his agenda of tax cuts, school choice and term limits stalled in the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
“His frank, outspoken and unwavering style made him a respected figure with his political opponents and a beloved governor by Mississippians across the state who elected him twice,” said Gov. Haley Barbour, the second Republican elected to the state’s highest office.
Fordice’s most raucous debates were over racial issues.
Just a few days after his swearing in, he threatened to call out the National Guard if the state was ordered to spend more money on its three historically black colleges.
In 1994, black lawmakers, angered by Fordice’s push for term limits, walked out on his state of the state address. Two years later, he tried to push the Senate to confirm four white men to the board overseeing the state’s higher education system. After a court battle and two rejections by the state Senate, Fordice backed down and made four new picks including a black man and a white woman.
‘The 1960s are over’
But he argued racial issues were overshadowed by economic ones. “Mississippi doesn’t do race anymore,” he said in his 1996 inaugural speech after winning a second term.
“The 1960s are over. ... We will acknowledge our history, but we will not let it determine our future. The only race that we’re concerned with is the race for more jobs, for better schools, for safer neighborhoods and the race for lower taxes,” he said.
His private life made headlines several times. In 1993, he revealed that he was having “irreconcilable differences” with his wife of 40 years, Pat. The first lady, through a terse press release, said she had no intention of getting a divorce.
Three years later, Fordice was seriously injured while driving back from his native Memphis, Tenn., where restaurant employees had seen him eating lunch and drinking wine with a woman believed to be Ann G. Creson, his high school sweetheart from Memphis.
In 1999, he was caught on television returning home from a vacation to France with Creson and cursed at a television reporter. Days later, he announced that he and his wife were divorcing. He married Creson shortly after leaving office in 2000, barred by term limits from seeking a third term. They later divorced.
A statement released by Fordice’s family said the governor had received calls, letters and prayers from people across the state during his illness.
“The people he served while in office served to lift his spirits during his final days,” the statement read.
He was survived by a daughter and three sons.