All of the national political attention in Mississippi of late has been on the increasingly vicious Republican Senate primary. It’s the general election, though, that threatens to resurrect the political scandal that six years ago boomeranged from the top echelon of Mississippi society to the highest levels of Washington, D.C.
Preparing for the possibility that six-term senator Thad Cochran’s tea-party-backed challenger, Chris McDaniel, beats him in the state’s June 3 primary, Democrats sought to recruit a potentially formidable Democratic candidate. Cochran, though vulnerable in a primary, has a virtual lock on the seat in a general election. It is McDaniel, more untested and more ideological, that Democrats believe they have a chance to defeat if he’s nominated.
Democrats have tapped former representative Travis Childers, a Blue Dog Democrat who boasts on his campaign website about his “pro-gun voting record” and what the National Right to Life deemed his “exemplary pro-life record.” They hope he has the chance to face McDaniel and become the next Joe Donnelly, winning a surprise victory as his insurgent opponent implodes in the general election.
While Washington buzzes with talk of the Koch brothers’ buying elections, in Mississippi, a senatorial campaign is being bankrolled by, quite literally, the members of a single family, one whose patriarch fell from the heights of power in 2008 to find himself not only disbarred, but behind bars.
Joey Langston made the mistake of getting caught up with Dickie Scruggs, who was for a time perhaps the most powerful lawyer in the South, if not the country, and who was convicted in 2008 of conspiring to bribe judges for rulings in his favor. Several of his friends and associates were convicted along with him in a series of events that rocked the legal and political communities in Mississippi and Washington.
Scruggs made a name for himself nationally as the plaintiff’s attorney who forced four tobacco giants into a record $246 billion settlement and wrenched millions from asbestos and insurance companies in a national class-action lawsuit. His conviction reverberated in Washington because Scruggs’s brother-in-law is former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, and Scruggs had talked of using his connection to Lott to help a local judge secure a federal appointment in exchange for a favorable ruling.
Langston, who made his money as a defense attorney, initially represented Scruggs in the case — that is, until he withdrew as counsel and pleaded guilty, just days later, to conspiring to bribe a judge on Scruggs’s behalf.
Langston was a power in his own right, the scion of one of Mississippi’s most powerful families. Former Boston Globe journalist Curtis Wilkie wrote in his book Fall of the House of Zeus that Langston had amassed all of the trappings of success: a private jet, a vacation home in Telluride, and the champagne tastes to accompany them. “His mansion was flanked by a swimming pool and a marble statuary that had once graced Gianni Versace’s palace in Miami,” Wilkie said of Langston’s home in Booneville, Miss. “Langston purchased the pieces after the fashion designer’s murder in 1997. He built a guesthouse with a game room bigger and finer than that of most full-time residences in the region.”
After Langston was convicted in the judge-bribing scandal, hundreds of letters poured in from his family and friends asking that he be granted leniency in sentencing. Among them was a letter from the congressman then representing Mississippi’s first district, Travis Childers.
“I suppose many will say that Joey somehow lost his way,” Childers wrote to District Court judge Mike Mills. “I disagree. No one in my forty nine years in Prentiss County has had greater impact on so many people that I personally know than Joey Langston. He has been a friend to all and an enemy to none. His heart is bigger than our entire county.” Childers went on to say he wished “every town and county in America had someone like Joey Langston.”
Langston’s fall from fortune was swift: He was disbarred, sentenced to three years in prison, and fined the maximum penalty, $250,000. Judge Mills may have turned a deaf ear to Childers and the rest of Langston’s supporters, but the Langston family, it appears, has not forgotten. If donations to Childers’s campaign are any guide, they’re finally repaying the favor.
Langston’s wife, Tracie, and his three children, Keaton, Colby, and Kane, have each donated the maximum $5,200 to the Childers campaign. Casey Langston Lott, Langston’s nephew, and his wife have also donated the $5,200 maximum, adding up to a total of $31,200 from Langston relatives. (Joey Langston himself has not donated.)
Before Langston’s conviction, he and his wife were long involved in politics, mostly but not exclusively on the Democratic side. They contributed thousands over the years to Washington senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, former Tennessee representative Harold Ford Jr., South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, and former Senate majority leader Trent Lott. Tracie was also a contributor to Joe Biden’s 2007 presidential campaign, and Scruggs and his friends hosted fundraisers in Oxford, Miss., for Biden, reportedly betting that he would not become president but secretary of state. When the scandal broke, the Wall Street Journal reported that all of the Biden donations tied to Scruggs were donated to charity.
The help of the Langston family has been instrumental to the nascent Childers campaign, accounting for three-quarters of his individual donations and over 60 percent of his total cash on hand.
If McDaniel, the tea-party insurgent, manages to knock off Cochran in the primary, polling has shown that a race between McDaniel and Childers, even in deep-red Mississippi, could be competitive. The Republican primary has been nasty; it would certainly be a surprise if the general election proved nastier. That’s not out of the question if the legal and political scandal that engulfed the state not so long ago once again becomes an issue.
— Eliana Johnson is a political reporter for National Review Online.