STARKVILLE — William E. “Bill” Spell, who died Oct. 12 at age 96, was the last major figure in what most Mississippians recall as the most sordid and bizarre political campaign in the state’s history back in 1983.
To say that Spell lived an interesting and impactful life is an understatement. A native of the tiny Copiah County hamlet of Georgetown, Spell graduated from the local high school in 1944 and then reported for duty in the U.S. Army Air Corps, where he served his country honorably during World War II.
After the war, Spell graduated from Mississippi College and later the Mississippi College School of Law.
His professional career was varied – he served as a radio announcer, newspaper reporter, energy trade association executive, was a staff assistant to legendary U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis, was an executive with one of the state’s leading advertising agencies, and eventually made a successful entrance into the private practice of law.
Spell’s media, trade association and governmental service brought him into the orbit of a number of players on the state’s political scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
It was from that vantage point that Spell – in strong measure at the behest of successful Jackson businessmen and Republican supporters Billy Mounger, Neal Clement, and Victor Smith – organized and implemented an investigation into then-Democratic Attorney General Bill Allain that shocked Mississippi politics and drew massive national attention.
Without question, the 1983 Mississippi gubernatorial campaign was the dirtiest campaign seen in this state before or since. The campaign between Allain, Republican nominee Leon Bramlett, and independents Charles Evers, Billy Taylor and Helen Williams was rocked when two weeks before the November general election, Allain was slammed with allegations of sexual liaisons with three Black male transvestite prostitutes.
Simply put, Allain was accused some 40 years ago of what was thought at the time to be conduct that no mainstream Mississippi politician could survive. Yet Allain did.
Allain - a divorced Natchez attorney and U.S. Army infantry combat veteran of the Korean Conflict - was leading Bramlett by 25 points in popularity polls before the Spell-led GOP group unveiled their allegation against him.
Allain vehemently denied the allegations. Bramlett challenged Allain to take a lie detector test and Allain eventually complied - releasing results that indicated that he was telling the truth.
The allegations set off a state and national media circus - bringing in an appearance by Geraldo Rivera - who interviewed the three prostitutes and aired a story in which all three recanted their prior accusations against Allain.
But after absorbing the allegations and watching the national and local media circus unfold, Mississippi voters simply didn’t buy the allegations. Not only did voters reject the allegations against Allain, but they also politically rebuked the Republicans who made them.
Allain won the election - carrying 74 of the state’s 82 counties - and went on to serve a productive term as governor despite complaints that he served the term somewhat cloistered in the Governor's Mansion after the raucous, raunchy campaign.
Was Allain guilty of the allegations or simply the victim of a vicious smear? As a journalist, I didn’t know 40 years ago, and I don’t know today. But I do know the majority of Mississippi voters had faith in Allain - faith enough to elect him governor and faith enough to reject the campaign tactics that threatened his election.
The Allain investigation changed Mississippi politics, campaign tactics, and attitudes about how far campaigns can or should go and what Mississippi voters would tolerate. There were also lessons for the media.
Spell, Mounger and others waging the 1983 campaign against Allain never wavered in their beliefs that they had a “duty” to bring the information forward. Allain died in 2013. Mounger, Clement, and Smith are likewise deceased.
An affable but intense figure who played to win in all things, Bill Spell was the last major player in this peculiarly Mississippi political drama.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.