STARKVILLE – When the news came that Mayor Joel Gill, D-Pickens, was killed in an automobile accident on Thursday, I could not help but reflect on what an intriguing template he presented to Mississippi’s struggling Democratic Party.
Joel Gill, in addition to being an incredibly nice, positive and genuinely dedicated public servant, was truly a conservative Democrat. In this age of the reliable demonization of any opponent from the party across the aisle, Gill’s Republican opponents were hard pressed to find issues with which they had much policy disagreement with the avuncular cattleman and he was simply too polite and courteous to give his GOP opponents much to shoot at personally, either.
U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Pearl, faced Gill twice in 2008 and in 2010 for the 3rd District congressional seat that Harper first won in 2008. I moderated a couple of campaign forums where the two faced off and hosted both as guests on my old SuperTalk radio show.
Particularly in the 2008 race and perhaps only a bit less in 2010, I saw exhibited by Harper and Gill a mutual respect and a genuinely cordial and congenial relationship in a campaign that is rare in partisan politics. Gill, quick with a joke and a story and likewise passionate about his beliefs, was workmanlike in his campaign but rarely let things get personal or petty.
“Sidney and I were saddened to learn that Joel had passed,” said Harper on Friday. “Joel was always a gentleman and ran very good and honorable races against us.”
Gill was also a candidate for agriculture commissioner in 2011. A native of Joplin, Missouri, Gill’s family moved to Mississippi when he was a boy in 1963. Gill was a second-generation cattleman who joined his father’s Jackson cattle business after a stint running a suburban Jackson gas station.
He moved to Pickens in 1979, where he would enter public service as a town alderman and later as mayor. Gill served two terms on the board of aldermen and was elected mayor in 2009 by a wide margin. In his first bid for Congress, Gill took 127,698 votes or 37.5 percent of the vote in a district that was drawn to elect a Republican in much the same way that the state’s 2nd congressional district is drawn to elect a Democrat.
Gill believed in the Democratic Party, but was unashamed of his basic fiscal conservatism. I asked him often how he could justify his personal conservatism with some of the platform planks of the Democratic Party.
“I’m a conservative Democrat and I believe in changing the party from within rather than just criticizing from the outside,” Gill said. “Single party politics were bad when the Democrats were in the majority in Mississippi and I don’t think that’s changed just because the Republicans have the upper hand now.”
Unlike most “perennial” candidates, Joel Gill wasn’t about ego or publicity. He really believed in the ideals he espoused. He worked hard. He was honest. And win, lose or draw, Mississippi’s political landscape was brighter when he was still on the horizon.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or