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When Others Talk Policy, Rep. Holland Talks People

Years ago, Mississippi Public Broadcasting decided to air a live “town hall” on a topic. Can’t remember what. Twenty or 30 people were to be seated in a studio, taking turns voicing their views. There was a seat open next to Steve Holland. I grabbed it for one reason: I knew he would have something to say, and that if I sat near him I could just nod.
As this year’s session ended, the planter from Plantersville — the one and only Rep. Steve Holland, proud old school Democrat and prouder funeral director — said he would not seek another term. He’s a young and energetic 61 years of age, but believes a diagnosis of progressive frontotemporal dementia — hardening of portions of his brain — means he should leave the Legislature in 2020.
The House chamber will be a quieter place.
But it won’t be a better place.
“Nemesis” is a good word. No two ways about it, Mississippians, starting about 1990, have increasingly elected “business-minded” Republicans to serve as governors, senators and representatives. Several former Democrats fled the party in order to avoid being tagged as in step with the far more liberal national party.
Not Holland. He is no “snowflake,” the term used these days to describe progressives who whine and complain about life’s unfairness. He’s just “people-minded” in the mold of great populists who focus their thinking and their actions on what legislation means to the proverbial little guy.
In that capacity, his job has been to rankle the leadership in recent years. When they talk about policy, he talks people.
There are many, many Steve Holland stories. Just one that illustrates his passion began about 10 years ago when Holland was nearly as rotund as the rotunda. He weighed 325 pounds and his obesity was the cause for a roster of other ailments.
Taking his doctors’ advice, Holland paid $17,000 for gastric bypass surgery in 2008 and, after discovering the procedure was not available through the insurance plan for state employees, led a crusade to make it so.
Holland was clear that the surgery was no quick fix. It took total commitment to become half the man he used to be, but he did it — and he so appreciated the change in the quality of his life he wanted others to have the same option.
Of course, it wasn’t easy to convince his colleagues. Except for his persistence, the topic would have gone away. Yet Holland wheedled and argued and preached and, in the end, compromised. In 2009, he managed to passage a bill to allow up to 100 state workers — once they exhausted all other options — to have surgery.
Can’t get everything? Take what you can get. But never surrender the point.
Although eventually coverage of such procedures became standard, not all efforts succeeded. In 2011, Gov. Haley Barbour vetoed another Holland initiative. As chairman of the House Public Health Committee, Holland wanted a volunteer state obesity council to investigate and make recommendations to get Mississippi off the list as “America’s fattest.” Barbour vetoed the legislation.
In the House and elsewhere, Holland is best known for what could politely be called candor. There’s never any doubt what he thinks about his opponents and there’s never any doubt about where he stands. He’ll shout when shouting is called for (and sometimes when it’s not) but he’s never mean-spirited. He’ll call someone a horse’s rear, but with gentle eloquence (usually).
Holland, in the Legislature since 1985, represents a mostly white, conservative district including much of Tupelo. He’s chaired most major committees during his tenure and was, perhaps, most effective in the heyday of the black-redneck coalition of Democrats led by former Speaker Billy McCoy, who left the Legislature six years ago.
Back then, the old-school Democrats could at least get a bill to the floor for debate. In recent years, the “business-minded” juggernaut has just rammed bills through. A reality is that no matter how conservative they really are, white Mississippi Democrats have had to bear the identity of their far more liberal cousins at the national level.
As indicated, legislating is not Holland’s only passion. He’s a marvelous pianist and a happy farmer. He’s a true family man and a pre-eminent funeral director, which leads to a memorable statement made years ago: “I gladly charge Republicans double so I can bury Democrats for free.”
Was he kidding? Maybe. But maybe not.
Mississippi has never had a greater fan or friend than Steve Holland. He’s earned some time off, but his strident voice of clarity and conviction is not easily replaced.

Charlie Mitchell mugshot 2014Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.
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