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Remembering Mississippi's Leon Bramlett

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Tuesday, 03 Nov 2015 08:47 AM Current | Bio | Archive

When Mississippians go to the polls today, they are almost sure to re-elect Republican Gov. Phil Bryant. Many will also undoubtedly recall a past Republican candidate for governor named Leon Bramlett.

What may be most remembered about Bramlett, who died Oct. 19 at age 92, is not that he was a trailblazer for his party in the Magnolia State but that he was a gentleman who refused to play rough in what is universally agreed was the nastiest race for governor in state history.

Bramlett, a farmer, U.S. Naval Academy graduate, and U.S. Marine Corps veteran lost bids for governor in 1979 and 1983. That was when the Republican Party of the Magnolia State was in the proverbial “telephone booth” and visions of a Republican sitting in the governor’s office appeared to be pipe dreams.

Well-spoken, silver-haired, and an unabashed conservative, Bramlett carried the GOP banner years before Mississippians in 1991 elected their first Republican governor since Reconstruction (the late Kirk Fordice) and later sent to the governor’s chair fellow Republicans Haley Barbour (2003 and ’07) and Bryant in 2011.

He was an All-American football star at the Naval Academy. Bramlett was, like most Mississippians of his generation, a Democrat well into his 50s. He had served as Democratic state chairman from 1968-72. But in the ’70s, he switched his registration to Republican.

In 1979, with the strong encouragement of conservatives who had backed Ronald Reagan for President three years before, Bramlett filed at the last minute for governor.

In large part because of the lateness of his entry into the race, first-time candidate Bramlett lost narrowly (52 percent to 48 percent) to moderate Gil Carmichael, a car dealer known from past races for U.S. senator in ’72 and governor in ’75.

Bramlett was co-chairman of political hero Reagan’s Mississippi campaign in 1980. Three years later, he became the GOP nominee for governor and faced Democrat Bill Allain, who had made a name for himself as state attorney general by taking on utilities companies.

Even in the Democratic primary, rumors were surfaced that the divorced Allain lived a secret life; that he had frequented male prostitutes. At the time, the issue of whether Mississippi might elect a gay governor was certainly explosive.

More significant, however, as early Mississippi Republican leader Billy Mounger wrote in his memoir “Against the Fray,” was that if the rumors were true, “Allain was breaking the very laws he was sworn to uphold as attorney general . . . Should we turn our heads as a state just because the laws potentially broken might have involved embarrassing sexual conduct?”

Along with fellow oilmen Neal Clement and Victor Smith, Mounger hired private investigators who produced substantial evidence from retired police officers that Allain had been observed soliciting male prostitutes.

The group finally uncovered three male prostitutes, David Holliday (alias “Devia Ross”), Donald Johnson (alias “Donna”), and Grady Arrington (alias “Nicole Troy”), who all offered graphic details of their encounters with Allain. All three passed lie detector tests.

“Oh, I would never do anything like that,” replied the Democratic nominee, “And I’m going to file a lawsuit against all of them.” (He never did.)

The Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s largest newspaper, reviewed the book of evidence presented by the Republicans, brought in the three prostitutes, and hired its own polygraph expert. They passed, said the Clarion Ledger’s executive director Charles Overby, “But I didn’t think the newspaper’s role was to expose sex habits.”

With the Clarion Ledger and other newspapers and television stations holding the story, Mounger and his friends tried to persuade Bramlett to adopt their findings against Allain. If he did, Mounger wrote, “the media would have had no option but to cover the issue fully, since it would have been part of his campaign.”

Bramlett would have no part of it. Reading the material for the first time and listening to the presentation, he told Mounger: “Oh, I just can’t do anything with that.” All three of the oilmen decided that if Bramlett, in Mounger’s words, “is not concerned enough to prevent such a person from being governor of Mississippi, why should we spend any more time on this effort?”

Allain won with more than 63 percent of the vote. Bramlett, who never sought office again, never offered regrets for not picking up on the issue that might have elected him. He did what he felt was right. (After leaving the governorship, Allain, who died in 2013, never discussed the controversy that surrounded him and would simply tell reporters: “It is something in the past that I don’t care to talk about.”)

"Leon Bramlett was a leader in sports, business, agriculture, and government, Ken Stribling, once a Mississippi Republican state legislator, told Newsmax, “A former U.S. Marine, he was a first-class gentleman who would have been a great governor. Yet, with all of his accomplishments, he remained humble and gracious to all. He will be missed."

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
 

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When Mississippians go to the polls today, they are almost sure to re-elect Republican Gov. Phil Bryant. Many will also undoubtedly recall a past Republican candidate for governor named Leon Bramlett.
bramlett, governor
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2015-47-03
Tuesday, 03 Nov 2015 08:47 AM
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