At a Jan. 23 fundraiser at the Whispering Woods hotel and conference center in Olive Branch, MS, a suburb of Memphis, TN, across the state line, the senior senator from Mississippi let his $500-a-plate audience know what he really wants to do: retire.
“He said he planned on retiring,” recalled a DeSoto County Republican in the room that evening, but “he was approached by individuals who had asked him to run again.”
The last-minute intervention staged by a mysterious group of GOP powerbrokers did succeed, in the sense that Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) is running, after all. Cochran said at the fundraiser they told him he’d been waiting all his life to be such a big deal on the Senate Appropriations Committee. (“The decision to run for reelection was his own,” Cochran’s spokesman says.)
But it may be for naught. The 76-year-old senator is in the fight of his life against state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a firebrand conservative who made his name in Mississippi taking on the granddaddy of the GOP establishment, former Gov. Haley Barbour.
Cochran is the oldest of old school appropriators, or “cardinals,” running in a political season when that style has become politically toxic. Earmarks are out, stopgap funding bills are in.
But the Mississippi senator has had a long career on the panel, and he has been especially successful on one front in particular: according to a review by Breitbart News, Cochran has more government buildings and programs named after himself than any current member of Congress.
At least 10 taxpayer-subsidized buildings bear Cochran’s name, and many more awards and government programs–even annual events throughout his state–laud the senior senator from Mississippi by pumping his ego with tax dollars.
In 2006, the University of Southern Mississippi named a 16,000-square-foot student center after Cochran. At the dedication for the “Thad Cochran Center,” USM president Dr. Shelby Thames thanked Cochran, then chairman of the Appropriations Committee, profusely for his help in securing the funds to build it.
“In my mind, he has done more than anyone to move our universities forward,” Thames said. “We owe him a great debt of gratitude.”
The same school named a $25 million “Marine Aquaculture Center” – built partially with federal money – after Cochran, calling it the “Thad Cochran Marine Aquaculture Center.”
Mississippi State University, meanwhile, named a specialty channel catfish research center the “Thad Cochran National Warmwater Aquaculture Center” after a 1997 Congressional earmark worth $500,000 directed that the center be named after the senator, according to the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste.
In 2005, the Mississippi University for Women renamed an aging dormitory, which was re-purposed into a student center building, the “Thad and Rose Cochran Hall,” in order “to honor the Cochrans’ decades of service to Mississippi and the Senator’s specific support of MUW.” A 2005 university newsletter touted how Cochran helped secure more than a million taxpayer dollars in funding for its various programs over the years.
“It’s immoral,” Cochran challenger McDaniel said in an interview at Breitbart News’ Capitol Hill offices. “In the 1970s, I suppose, when the debt was only $400 billion, perhaps there was a basic understanding that this was acceptable. In the modern day and age with $17.2 trillion in debt and unfunded liabilities close to $200 trillion, it’s absolutely unacceptable,” he added.
Beyond spending federal tax dollars on catfish research, critics argue the practice of naming buildings and programs after living officials who are in positions of authority to direct spending to those projects is problematic, a kind of conflict of interest.
“Sitting Members of Congress should not use the money of the people they serve to honor themselves,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told Breitbart News.
McCaul and a small group of House Republicans like Ohio Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) have been crusading to eliminate the practice, which they have lampooned as “monuments to me.”
In 2008, following a debate over a $2 million earmark for a City College of New York building named after New York Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel, McCaul introduced legislation banning the practice. He had some limited success with the ban attempts, blocking it for all spending in the first quarter of the 2009 fiscal year and in military spending for all of fiscal year 2009. But the practice is still allowed now.
“Often, monuments honoring politicians receive special treatment because of the names they bear. When the American people see this it feeds the belief that members of Congress are arrogant and out of touch with the people we represent. At minimum, members of Congress should wait until after their terms to be honored by any type of memorial, since often these projects serve as fundraising tools and campaign ads for the incumbent, and the taxpayers foot the bill,” McCaul said.
An episode of the hit political drama series House of Cards references the phenomenon, when lead character House Majority Whip Frank Underwood’s old alma mater military college The Sentinel names a library after him. In one of his infamous fourth-wall monologues at a ceremony the night before his library’s dedication, Underwood tells his audience The Sentinel “solicit[ed] a hefty sum for their new library 30 years [after he graduated.] How quickly poor grades are forgotten in the shadow of power and wealth.”
Yet the practice is hardly fictional.
Cochran spokesman Chris Gallegos said Cochran has “never asked or encouraged anyone to name anything for him.”
His colleagues, including fellow Mississippi senators and close friends, have, however.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) “Thad Cochran Southern Horticultural Laboratory” in Poplarville, MS received its name in 2005 after former-Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT)–who was defeated by Tea Party challenger Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT)–offered an amendment to an agriculture appropriations bill.
With Cochran as the chairman of the appropriations committee, Bennett offered the amendment on the Senate floor that renamed the USDA building after Cochran. The amendment passed by voice vote with no objections.
In 2007 former Sen. Trent Lott, the one-time majority leader and Cochran’s Mississippi colleague, introduced a bill to name a U.S. Courthouse in Mississippi after Cochran. After ABC News’ 20/20 focused on the bill–and quoted people outside the courthouse saying they viewed it as permanent re-election campaign propaganda for Cochran–the bill died before passing into law.
In other cases, Cochran has worked to fund projects championed by lobbyists he is close to.
Yet another school in the state, the University of Mississippi colloquially known as “Ole Miss,” named a building that houses pharmaceutical and dietary research programs the “Thad Cochran Research Center.”
According to a September 2008 report from the Memphis, Tennessee Commercial Appeal newspaper, Cochran helped secure 27 earmarks worth $37 million for the school in just the previous fiscal year.
Mississippi’s MSU was the only school nationwide to get more federal earmarks and spending than Ole Miss that fiscal year with a total of $43 million.
“Ole Miss owes much of its earmarked good fortune to Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who with more than $1 billion in earmarks delivered more money to his state than any other senator or congressman in the nation,” Trevor Aaronson wrote in that report.
The lobbyists Ole Miss hired to rake in that cash from Cochran include firms Griffith & Rogers, at which Haley Barbour once served as a partner, and a one-man firm run by Cochran’s former chief of staff, Bradley Prewitt. Ole Miss spent $180,000 lobbying for those earmarks from Cochran and other lawmakers, $100,000 with Barbour’s old shop, and $80,000 on Prewitt.
One group of three earmarks worth $10.2 million that Cochran pulled down for Ole Miss went specifically to naming the “Thad Cochran Research Center.” Those earmarks, Aaronson wrote, “not only benefited [Cochran’s] alma mater but propped up the Ole Miss research center that bears his name.”
The list of buildings named for Cochran does not stop there.
After receiving $500,000 in federal appropriations “for economic development activities and campus and facility improvements” in 2005, according to the Congressional Record, when Cochran chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee, Delta State University named yet another building after the senior senator from Mississippi. The “Thad Cochran Center for Rural School Leadership and Research” there houses various education programs.
A joint venture between the city of Starkville, MS, and Oktibbeha County, MS, has also named a large facility after Cochran. The “Thad Cochran Research, Technology, and Economic Development Park” also gets support from Mississippi State University, while housing a variety of technology firms, a tire company, and several research facilities. According to its website, the park currently has 78 vacant acres of land remaining. This monument to Cochran came as a result of a $6.5 million earmark, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and is connected back to a $200,000 lobbying campaign on MSU’s behalf.
In Jackson, MS, the Jackson Medical Mall of the University of Mississippi Medical Center named another building after Cochran. The “Jackson Medical Mall Thad Cochran Center” got its name in 2001, after Cochran and his staff worked to funnel federal tax dollars to the program.
“[Cochran’s] done so much for us,” Wallace Conerly, vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, said during the August 2001 ceremony which named the building for the Senator, according to the Associated Press. “He and his staff have led the charge for us in Washington to secure federal dollars.”
Conerly added that Cochran’s then-senior position on the Senate Appropriations Committee–he was not chairman yet in 2001–puts him in a spot where he “takes care of us with a smile on his face.”
According to that 2001 Associated Press story, about “$30 million has been spent” on the facility before it was named after Cochran.
Cochran has also faced criticism from McCaul for another “Monument to Me” he built. McCaul, who has again introduced a bill that would ban such activity from lawmakers, has called Cochran out for the “Thad Cochran U.S. Bankruptcy Courthouse” in Aberdeen, MS.
Federally-funded buildings are not the only “Monuments to Me” built for Cochran. There are several awards–and even government spending programs–named for him too.
In 1984, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, Cochran “established” the “Cochran Fellowship Program.” It provides agricultural training in the United States to foreign professionals from countries like Egypt, Costa Rica, and Mozambique. “The program was established by, and named for, Senate appropriator Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) in 1984,” the anti-government waste organization wrote of the program Cochran created and named after himself when it spent $400,000 in 2001, according to the group’s “Congressional Pig Book” from that year.
The Mississippi Alliance for Arts Education gives out several awards named for Sen. Cochran, too. For instance, in 2012 the group gave out the “Thad Cochran Distinguished Arts Educator Award” for both “Music” and “Theatre.”
In 2013, the Mississippi Council on Economic Education–a local Mississippi group similar to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce–hosted the “2013 U.S. Senator Thad Cochran Forum on American Enterprise.” Tickets cost attendees in the range of anywhere from $125 for a single seat to $5,000 for a table of 10.
Annually, the Mississippi Republican Party hosts the “Thad Cochran Award for Public Service Banquet” event at the Hollywood Casino in Biloxi, MS, where he usually speaks and presents the award.
Later this month, from Feb. 20 to Feb. 23, the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration (NLCC) in Natchez, MS, will hold a conference celebrating 60 years of the Civil Rights Movement. At the event, Barbara Carpenter of the Mississippi Humanities Council will receive the “Thad Cochran Humanities Achievement Award.” Cochran himself will speak at the event, according to an NLCC release.
According to the Jackson Free Press, in September 2013, Cochran also gave out an award bearing his name to a teacher in the state. The “US Senator Thad Cochran Mississippi Economics Teacher Award” winners received “$500 PLUS an all-expenses-paid trip to the 2014 Council for Economic Education Annual Conference,” the Free Press noted.
There is also the “Thad Cochran Grand Ballroom” at USM’s Department of Dance, which according to the Hattiesburg American newspaper just recently hosted an event focused on using dance to fight addiction.
Over 40 years after he came to Washington, Cochran’s political career is at risk for, really, the first time. After a short stint in the House, Cochran won his senate seat in 1978. It was previously held by a Democrat. Cochran won with a plurality of the vote because an independent split the then-strong Democratic Party vote in Mississippi. In each of Cochran’s subsequent five re-election campaigns, he has not faced any strong primary challengers. And in the general elections in those years, the Democratic Party has not fielded any candidate who seriously threatened Cochran’s re-election chances. In one year, 1990, Cochran was re-elected to the U.S. Senate completely unopposed.
But if he should lose his election, at least Cochran can rest known his legacy is more than taken care of in his home state.
For quick reference, here is the list of all Cochran buildings, monuments, and programs included in this article:
Thad Cochran Center at the University of Southern Mississippi
Thad Cochran Marine Aquaculture Story at the University of Southern Mississippi
Thad Cochran National Warmwater Aquaculture Center at Mississippi State University
Thad and Rose Cochran Hall at the Mississippi University for Women
U.S. Department of Agriculture Thad Cochran Southern Horticultural Laboratory
Thad Cochran Research Center at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss)
Thad Cochran Center for Rural School Leadership and Research at Delta State University
Thad Cochran Research, Technology, and Economic Development Park in Starkville, MS
Jackson Medical Mall Thad Cochran Center at the University of Mississippi Medical Center
Thad Cochran U.S. Bankruptcy Courthouse in Aberdeen, MS
Cochran Fellowship Program
Thad Cochran Distinguished Arts Educator Awards for Music and Theatre from the Mississippi Alliance for Arts Education
2013 U.S. Senator Thad Cochran Forum on American Enterprise from the Mississippi Council on Economic Education
Thad Cochran Award for Public Service Banquet from the Mississippi Republican Party at the Hollywood Casino in Biloxi, MS
Thad Cochran Humanities Achievement Award from the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration in Natchez, MS
US Senator Thad Cochran Mississippi Economics Teacher Award
Thad Cochran Grand Ballroom at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Department of Dance