Mississippi's Mabus bucks mossy image

Ray Mabus Jr. warned them. As the new state auditor for Mississippi in 1983, he sent out memos to county courthouses: The traditional favors - spreading county gravel on private driveways and digging graves with county crews - were going to stop.

Angry officials shortly deluged the Legislature with no less than 16 bills to legalize the gravel and grave favors. All failed.

Enforcing these never-enforced laws saves taxpayers about $20 million a year, Mr. Mabus figures. ``That's a [statewide] teacher pay raise, or half of kindergarten,'' he says.

From an obscure elected post, his first ever, the tireless young Mabus has brought a new way of doing business to Mississippi politics.

No question, he has made some people angry.

But he also may be the leading contender to be the state's next governor.

Some see him as Mississippi's version of the new Southern-style politicians - bright, young, energetic salesmen for economic development in the mold of Bill Clinton of Arkansas, a Democrat, and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a Republican.

Mabus, a Democrat, will not formally announce until next month whether he will run for governor in 1987. But Mississippians have already figured it out.

Few doubt Mabus's professional competence. When he took over the state auditor's post, the system was so chaotic that adding each state agency together showed them 581 audit years behind. Five counties were so overdue they had lost their bond ratings.

Within 18 months, Mabus and his crew had caught up with the audits, standardized spending reports from the 82 counties, and helped several install new computer systems.

For the five counties with lost bond ratings, he flew to New York and hand-delivered up-to-date audits to the rating agencies, which restored them.

But Mabus's campaigns against government spending abuse have been more controversial.

He has retrieved some $2 million from officials who misspent it, mostly at the county level, by using public resources on private projects, hiring relatives, or levying taxes for one purpose and spending the money for another.

Mabus argues that he has saved taxpayers another $50 million by putting officials on their guard. His weapon of choice in the graft-busting battle is the press conference. Critics say he sometimes uses it too well, injuring naive, if not quite innocent, bystanders.

Much of what Mabus's investigators uncover, says District Attorney Frank Carlton of Greenville, ``may be an accounting problem, rather than an embezzlement problem.'' And Marshall County attorney Fred Belk says, ``Where there's malfeasance in office, I think you ought to nail 'em. [But] I don't like to see someone publicly castigated for an unfortunate error in judgment.''

Mabus's view is that even if exposed abuses do not lead to indictments, ``the public is served by knowing how their money is spent.''

While most politicians are honest, he adds, he suspects that petty theft in the $300 to $400 range is widespread at all levels of government. Graft hurts worse here in the poorest, least-educated state in the union than elsewhere, Mabus says. ``You can see it. You can see it in the roads. You can see it in the fact that unemployment is highest in the country. It is not a victimless crime.''

Mabus's accounting exploits have made him popular, but they have also made him enemies. In some counties, when citizens call in asking for driveway gravel or a grave dug, officials answer: ``Ray Mabus won't let us.''

Most of the spending abuses Mabus and his investigators have uncovered were exposed as the result of tips called in by citizens. More than 2,500 people have called, he notes, and all identified themselves. Eighty percent of the tips have panned out.

Mabus's roots are in a small town in the Mississippi red-clay hills where he still runs his father's tree farm. But after Harvard Law School and a high-paying position in a Washington, D.C., law firm, he returned to Mississippi and restored a Victorian house in an old Jackson neighborhood - the modern, geometric interior sporting oriental rugs and a personal computer. He drives a cluttered midsized American car, and goes running nightly.

Mabus travels constantly, not just within the state, but around the country, raising campaign funds from industries and financiers with interests in Mississippi and who, presumably, like his approach. He says that the perception of Mississippi as a state obsessed with race and not caring is no longer accurate.

Mabus has his own ideas about how the state ought to spend its scarce money. More aggressive economic development and planning are high on his list. He likes the examples of Clinton and Alexander of Arkansas and Tennessee, whom he credits with making great economic strides.

``None of this is very original,'' he says. ``None of this is very profound. It's just never been done.''

Mabus's political strength lies with blacks and urban whites. His weakness is with rural whites, but polls show him improving there, he says, adding that white voters in the countryside say: ``He's a troublemaker, but he's our troublemaker.''

``I think that if Mississippi will ever ... move beyond that good ol' boy system,'' he says, ``then we won't just move to 49th or 48th'' in state prosperity ranking.

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