Of all the characters I’ve come to know in almost four decades of writing about Mississippi politics, none is more memorable than State Rep. Steve Holland, the Democrat from Plantersville.
Holland, 61, made public that he has been diagnosed with dementia and plans to retire at the end of his current term. That plan accomplished, Holland will have served for 36 years in the Mississippi Legislature.
While this column might in the minds of some take on the feel of an obituary, that’s not what I’m attempting. I just think I’d prefer to give Holland his roses while he can still smell them. I’ve known him since his days on Capitol Hill on the staff of U.S. Rep. Jamie Whitten.
Despite not often agreeing on politics and knocking heads on some specific public policy issues, I have long considered Holland a friend. Indeed, it’s hard for even his most committed political adversaries not to like Holland. His flamboyance, his quick sense of humor, and his passion for the things he believes in are difficult to ignore.
One of my favorite Holland experiences was his participation in the 2000 funeral of seven-term State Rep. Dick Livingston of Pulaski. Livingston, a fellow “Yellow Dog” Democrat from Scott County, had been instrumental as a powerful Game and Fish Committee (as it once was called) chairman in bringing an opulent performance auditorium to Roosevelt State Park at Morton — right in the heart of his district.
Lawmakers in attendance at Livingston’s funeral were whispering among themselves about how nice the facility was and the intrigue it took to get it there. Holland, prior to the memorial services, was delivering a staccato political play-by-play of how Livingston played hardball and brought that facility to fruition in the legislative process.
He wasn’t quite done with the story when he was called to the stage of the auditorium to play the piano. Holland shifted effortlessly from telling a political tale laced with profanity to playing a lovely version of “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” in a style that would have shamed Jimmy Swaggart.
To be sure, Holland in his prime was one of the best honky-tonk gospel piano players I’ve ever heard. As a funeral home owner, director, and licensed embalmer for some 40 years, Holland’s lack of convention and his occasional rejection of the rules of polite society might well trace to the quantity of time he has spent with the faithful departed.
Holland, at once, is obstinate, profane, compassionate, intelligent and crazy like a fox. His constituents have given him a pass on public pronouncements that would have sent the vast majority of his fellow lawmakers down in political flames.
Steve was a featured player an infamous 2013 article in Gentleman’s Quarterly (GQ) magazine that sought to wrap literary arms around the bizarre case of Everett Dutschke of Tupelo, who pleaded guilty to Tupelo pleaded guilty in 2014 after federal prosecutors accused him of making ricin and mailing it to former President Barack Obama, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and Lee County Justice Court Judge Sadie Holland — Holland’s mother.
The GQ article, which described Steve Holland as “a gloriously profane and paradoxically genteel man” was about as far out on a long limb as Steve Holland ever ventured. The article quoted Holland extensively and the quotes were peppered with wild utterances about the funeral home business he operates in Tupelo.
Holland is fond of relating the story that Holland Funeral Directors in Tupelo is located on the former site of “the largest nightclub and beer joint in the state of Mississippi.” Yet I closely observed Holland’s service to the family of the late MSU broadcaster Jack Cristil at his death. His work could not have been more professional nor more respectful.
Steve Holland is a walking contradiction and he’s never cared much what you or I think of him. He says what he thinks and doesn’t often apologize for it. His lasting contribution in the Mississippi Legislature won’t be the long list of outrageous pronouncements. It will be his steadfast concern for matters of public health and welfare and for defending the rights of the poor that endures.
When he retires, the Legislature – and state government — won’t be nearly as much fun.