National politicos can look to Mississippi for answers on impact of disabilities on elected officeholders
The Mississippi Legislature was in the midst of what was known as “the special session from hell” 20 years ago this month, debating whether to give businesses and medical providers more protection from lawsuits. Legislators ultimately did.
A key player in that special session that spanned a record-setting 83 days was Sen. Bennie Turner, a Democrat from West Point. Turner was respected in the Mississippi Legislature for his thoughtful analysis, civility and even-keeled approach to legislating.
He also had a serious hearing impairment.
A recent NBC national news interview with Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who is the Democratic nominee in a closely watched U.S. Senate race, stirred a debate about disabilities and serving in key electoral office.
Fetterman suffered a stroke earlier this year. Because of the stroke, he insisted the NBC interview be done in a manner that allowed him to read the reporter’s questions as they were being asked.
Apparently at times, Fetterman’s comprehension of audio communications can be troublesome, though he said the condition should improve in the coming months.
Whether it does or does not improve, though, should not be viewed as a factor in determining his qualifications to be in the U.S. Senate, some contend. Others argue it should.
The debate was stirred in part because the reporter, Dasha Burns, said it was not clear Fetterman could understand her during a period of small talk before the captioning device that allowed him to read her questions was turned on. How that report was portrayed by some in the national media helped spur the debate about Fetterman’s competency.
But during the actual interview, Fetterman read along as the questions were asked and answered forthrightly and sensibly. He stumbled briefly over the word “empathetic.”
Bennie Turner’s hearing loss happened after he was already serving in the Mississippi Legislature. He was elected in 1992, and in 1999 developed life-threatening meningitis, a disease that causes an inflammation of the brain lining and spinal cord. The disease left Turner with a hearing impairment, though he was never totally deaf.
Upon his return to the Legislature, Turner told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, “My main concern is whether I can give the constituents of the 16th District the representation they deserve. At this point I feel like I can deliver, and I am going to try as hard as a I can to do that.”
He must have delivered in the eyes of his constituents. He was re-elected three times after contracting meningitis. Accommodations were made in the state Senate so that Turner, like Fetterman, could read the ongoing debates on his computer.
He remained an effective member of the Senate until he died in 2012 and was succeeded by his daughter, Angela Turner Ford. On numerous occasions, he would rise to express concern about the wording of a bill that could cause unintended consequences. Because of that keen understanding of legislation, the senators would always listen and often would change bills, based on Turner’s input.
Before Bennie Tuner came to the Legislature, Ellis Bodron served in the Mississippi House from 1948 until 1952 and in the state Senate from 1953 until 1984. Bodron, a Vicksburg attorney, was blind. People who served with him marveled at his ability to comprehend and explain complex and lengthy revenue bills.
He chaired the Senate Finance Committee. His chairmanship of the Finance Committee gave him a powerful position to oppose Gov. William Winter’s historic 1982 special session on education reform. Bodron opposed the legislation, but shepherded it through Finance at the behest of Lt. Gov. Brad Dye, who presided over the Senate.
Interestingly, Turner was the Judiciary chair during the infamous 2002 special session and opposed the legislation but played a key role in the process because of his chairmanship and the respect he endeared. He was one of the negotiators on the legislation.
In other words, Bodron’s and Turner’s roles in two historic special sessions were similar.
During Billy McCoy’s first term as House speaker, he suffered a stroke that left him with partial use of his left arm and with what some would say was a speech impediment.
Yet McCoy finished that term and served another as speaker, presiding during a turbulent time when partisan politics became more of a factor. He still played key roles in passing impactful legislation, including the bill that allowed casinos on the Gulf Coat to move on shore after Hurricane Katrina.
Voters in Pennsylvania will decide whether John Fetterman is competent to serve in the Senate. Their vote for or against him might not even be predicated on his stroke-induced impairment, though his Republican opponent, a medical doctor, Mehmet Oz, is certainly trying to make it an issue.
Mississippians have already decided, based on results, that a person with a disability can be an impactful member of their Legislature.