Congressman Gene Taylor
The Representative From Mississippi’s 4th Congressional District Says There Will Be No Senate Run Next Year. He Will Continue With What The People Sent Him To Do.
By Perry Hicks- Special to Gulf Coast News Filed 11/10/05 GCN
It was by chance that I came across Congressman Gene Taylor on the street in Washington, D.C. We were both heading to our mutual 2 o’clock appointment at the Rayburn House Office Building. I was walking down from the Metro subway station, located just south of the Capitol. As is routine for Gene, someone had stopped him in momentary conversation.
If it weren’t for his soft Mississippi accent I may not have recognized him, so lost was I in my thoughts. But turning toward that unmistakable voice, there was no doubt as to who I had heard as there has been little change in his appearance over time. My previous interview with him had been for the old Gulfport Star Journal newspaper nearly 16 years ago.
Yes, Gene is a bit older but still fit and trim. His hair has both lightened and grayed in places but the biggest change has been in his eyes. They carry a touch of weariness from getting far too little rest.
Indeed, Congressman Taylor is well known for working late into the night, literally sleeping in his office during the week when Congress is in session. Evidently, the Capitol Hill apartment he had kept some years ago must not have quite worked out.
Having introduced myself, Gene chatted with me cordially as we made our way on a beautiful autumn day. At the Rayburn, Gene entered through the House member doorway while I went through security. Always a gentleman, he waited for me to be screened rather than hurrying on ahead.
When we reached a stairwell, he asked if we could walk up instead of taking an elevator. Agreeing, we climbed to the second floor together where we were whisked into his office and, with Policy Director Brian Martin sitting in, promptly began the hour-long interview.
All Katrina All of the Time
As a Hurricane Katrina survivor, Gene Taylor is distinct from most any other politician on Capitol Hill. Remarking on my observation he admitted, “No, most of them up here don’t have any idea how bad it has been.”
My first question was to ask how were he and his family doing in the aftermath of the storm?
Gene simply tried to pass it off with brevity saying things like, “Busy,” and, “All Katrina all of the time.” He is protective of his family and has been known to get a bit prickly when personal questions come up. I sought to assuage his concerns by assuring him that people who care about him would want to know. After some minutes he finally began to open up.
“We had evacuated on up to the Kiln,” (pronounced kill) Gene said. “We were concerned about our home right there on the water in Bay Saint Louis. I thought, 8 inches of rain, yeah, it might make it. I expected the first floor to be filled with mud so the drywall on the first floor would have to be redone along with new wiring. Maybe some water damage to the second floor where sections of the roof might have come off…
“After the winds died down, we took a boat out and came down the bay to see. I spotted where the marina should have been- it was gone- and I traced a line back up to where the house should have been- it was gone, too,” he paused for a moment before adding, “All of houses there were gone.”
Gene’s recollection of the days immediately after the storm paralleled others, as he described the eerie silence and the complete absence of life; even the ever-present sea gulls had disappeared.
“Katrina’s eye passed right over us in the Kiln. We looked up and saw gulls flying backwards- flying facing the wind with wings stretched out as they were being blown north at about 40 to 45 knots. I have no idea what could have happened to them. Even the leaves were stripped from the trees,” he told me obviously still in some amazement.
“We heard that a friend of ours had died in the storm so we set out to go find him. Debris from houses covered the ground feet thick- you had to walk carefully over it avoiding nails and stepping through- it took us about 45 minutes to cover just one block. Along the way we ran into someone we knew. Their house had been destroyed as all those around them. When I asked about my friend they said, “Aw, he is fine.” And it was like that, destruction here but over there houses were inexplicably spared. The destruction would go right up to some of them and for some unknown reason just stop.”
No Senate Run
I reminded Gene that when I had interviewed him back in l990, he had told me the people had sent him here to do a job and he would stay as long as they wanted him. The question 16 years later is did he still feel the same way?
“There is a rumor that there will be a senate seat open next year,” Gene confided, “The people gave me what I asked for (in sending him to congress) and I will keep my promise. There will be no run for the U.S. Senate.”
Taylor had begun his career as a Bay Saint Louis city councilman, then later moving to the Mississippi State Senate. Gene later ran against but lost to former Harrison County Sheriff, Larkin Smith. When Smith died in a plane crash 8 months later, Taylor won a special election to the House in October 1989. Since then, he has easily won re-election, garnering as much as 80% of the vote.
As to why he entered politics in the first place, Gene says it was simple: “I wanted to make Bay Saint Louis better but keep it as it was- not turn it over to developers.”
In the wake of Katrina, Taylor’s concerns remain the same.
Struggling with Recovery
This broached a subject GCN has been reporting on for many weeks: The uncertainties surrounding the Coast’s recovery. With many residents caught between conventional home and flood insurance- if they had flood insurance at all- the specter of mass bankruptcy is very great.
“A lot of very smart people did not have flood insurance because they were told they didn’t need it,” Taylor told GCN.
To illustrate his point, Brian Martin set out a very large aerial photograph of the storm damage and a pre-Katrina flood insurance map. There was an awesome disparity between the two.
“We are working on a bill that says if someone without flood insurance pays 10 years of premiums- something like $300 per year, so that would be $3000, then they may file a claim for an amount up to their wind (insurance) policy or $250,000 which ever is less. They also have to stay with the flood insurance plan forever,” said Taylor.
With literally tens of thousands of people facing foreclosure, I remarked that this would be catastrophic for the banks and other mortgage lenders. Gene shot back, “I don’t worry about the banks- they will hold the land and that will have some value- it is the people I worry about trying to hold on to what is left of their lives. We want the Coast to come back right.”
This brought us full circle back to why Taylor had come to politics in the first place; making his community better without changing it. The fact is Katrina has displaced people on a scale not seen since the days following the Civil War. Those who have been evacuated have been scattered all over the United States. With no homes or jobs to return to, it is quite possible many will set down roots where they are and so never return.
“You would be surprised how many people have come back,” Gene replied with considerable reluctance to admit his beloved Coast could be irreparably changed. “For example, St. Stanislaus just reopened and with all of the pressure on students to go elsewhere- the need to do well their senior year so they can win scholarships and so forth- I was pleasantly taken aback how many have returned. Half of them have lost their homes and over half of them are living in a FEMA trailer. But they want to be here (South Mississippi,) not somewhere else.”
Critiquing the National Effort
One of the refreshing things about Taylor, a Democrat, is how he handles differences with the president and the Republican Party. He channels his sharp criticisms within the context of specific issues. Making his logical arguments in this way brings a dividend. When he does object, it has real impact.
“When you complain all of the time and have no plan of your own, people aren’t going to listen to you. I want to keep personal things out of it and be fair. Some things about the national response has been really good; the Hurricane Hunters and the forecasters tacking Katrina, the National Guard, the Seabees, our military response in general; but FEMA gets an F minus,” Gene said matter-of-factly.
As any good congressman, Taylor is quick with the facts telling GCN, “Bay Saint Louis alone has 70 miles of streets and the Guard had them open in 3 days. I think something like 96% of coast streets have been cleared now.” Gene then went on to counter one of my assertions saying, “Debris is not keeping people from getting FEMA trailers.”
Reports from the ground would suggest otherwise. Debris has to be removed so electricity, water and sewer can be connected. Furthermore, it takes multiple inspectors to approve a site before a FEMA trailer can be delivered- this last point being one with which all three of us could agree.
Taylor went on, obviously understanding how people are still trying to salvage some scrap of their former lives, “Many people don’t want contractors taking a big mechanical claw and just scoop up what is left of their homes. I don’t want that myself. I keep turning over the debris from our own home, looking, hoping to find something of value. I think I have found exactly two intact doors out of the entire house, but I keep looking,”
With some emotion in his voice, Taylor went on saying, “The problem with getting FEMA trailers is that there are not enough electricians and plumbers. Bechtel is being paid by the day so they have no incentive to move quickly. They look to making this a career rather than the emergency task that it is.”
When I proffered that it was callous to close Camp Vancleave in Jackson County and prevent an emergency encampment elsewhere, ostensibly because it is a “wetland,” Taylor disagreed saying, “They are not trying to be callous, they are just following regulations.” However, this led us back to the subject of FEMA and the prior director, Michael D. Brown.
Taylor said, eyes flashing in real anger, “I have copies of emails that show that at the very moment I was calling the Joint Chiefs of Staff begging for emergency supplies, hospital ships, and other relief, Brown was more concerned about his dinner reservations in Baton Rouge. He came to us (at the hearing) arrogantly complaining about Louisiana and everything other than his own performance. Brown is just simply incompetent. I cannot believe he was given a $148,000 contract to consult FEMA much less that the contract has been extended.”
When I suggested that FEMA’s problems must run deeper than Brown because we seem to have seen little improvement since his going, Gene switches from criticism to confidence.
“Paulison (R. David Paulison, FEMA’s new director) is practical. He has years of experience in fire and rescue. He is going to be sitting right here in this office at 4 o’clock and I will have a list of my concerns and he will listen and understand,” Taylor continued confidently.
When I shifted gears to suggest that the unique architecture of the coast could never be recreated, Taylor remained positive saying, “It can be rebuilt in a traditional style. Some of the construction from the 50s and 60s was… ah… kind of modern and it never really fit in. Most of that is gone now.”
With that, a staffer opened the door to announce his 3 o’clock was waiting. I thanked Gene and Brian Martin and before I took my leave, paused one more time to survey his comfortably warm but unassuming office. It reinforced my impressions of him and is worthy of some examination.
Like a mirror, both Gene’s office, and even his staff, make a good reflection of the congressman. The walls are washed in a sunny shade of cream and furnished in a modest traditional style. It is dignified for a congressman, but avoids an inappropriate level of grandeur.
His office could be better described as a work center. The desk faces not toward the room from where he can lord but instead faces the single large window. From there, he turns his chair around to collaborate even on something as simple as a journalist’s interview.
While Taylor is firm in both holding and expressing his beliefs, he does not appear to be one who micromanages his staff. Gene sets the objectives and then his staff is expected to do what needs to be done. It is called leadership.
For example, when I complimented him on having manned his office nights and weekends throughout the storm, and for having immediately marked up his main web page with useful emergency information, Gene demurred, giving full credit to his staff.
It was quite apparent that Taylor isn’t interested in accolades. Seeking praise would take time away from getting his constituent’s work done; and doing that work, keeping his promises to the voter, is what Gene Taylor is all about.
I left the Hill with a new sense of reassurance that the Coast might well come back, perhaps even better than it had been before. That is at least if Congressman Gene Taylor has anything to say about it.
About the Author.....
Perry Hicks is a former Mississippi Coast resident and was a correspondent for the old Gulfport Star Journal. He has appeared on Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor.” Perry has also hosted his own radio talk show on the auto industry with a mix of politics. Perry is a former college professor and a frequent contributor to GCN writing on stories of national importance with local interests. His articles can be found in the GCN Archive.
Contact the Author: firstname.lastname@example.org