Cooking up good things for tourism statewide
By Becky Gillette
Photography by Johnny Jennings
Sen. Lydia Graves Chassaniol won the first real political race she entered when she ran for the Mississippi Senate in 2007 after the death of Sen. Robert G. “Bunky” Huggins. Tapping young Republicans to help her campaign, the educator who had worked as an art teacher and later headed the dropout prevention program in Leflore County won over five male candidates in the special election.
There aren’t many women in the Mississippi Senate, and initially Chassaniol was concerned about stepping into the shoes of “Bunky” Huggins.
“They were all heartbroken when he died,” Chassaniol says. “I showed up in the Senate, and Joey Fillingame was my desk mate. I told Joey, ‘We have got to do something to make these people like us so we can get a foot in the door.’ So we decided to cook for them. For fun, I love to cook. Joey is a good sous chef. So Joey and I cooked for them, and it was a hit. Now they expect us to do it every year. It is a lot of fun.”
Chassaniol, whose idea of relaxing late in the evening is curling up with a cookbook in bed, went on to cook up a lot more than food in the Senate. She gained enough regard among fellow legislators that she was named chair of the Senate Tourism Committee.
“She is constantly promoting all the tourism projects in the Delta or anywhere in state,” Fillingame says. “Her philosophy is, if it is good for tourism in Mississippi, it helps us all. She is a very effective state senator for her district. She loves her people and that shows in everything she does.”
Fillingame has seen her in many roles including lobbying for legislation she really believes in, meeting with major industries like Viking Range—a major employer in her Senate district—and even having fun tailgating at Ole Miss.
“What you see is what you get with Lydia, and that is a rare thing today in modern politics where people are putting on so many different faces and pretending to be what they are not,” says Fillingame. “She is who she is at all times, and that is wonderful person. Lydia is a genuine personality and the real deal. She is what she is behind closed doors, out in the public arena, anywhere she goes. She is a very caring and compassionate person who works hard to help her constituents.”
Chassaniol has friends who, when they are in the car with her say, “Don’t stop at Wal-Mart!” That is because she will likely be stopped so frequently by people with requests for help that the shopping visit can take a long time.
Chassaniol grew up on a farm one mile from Winona, and hasn’t strayed far since. She still lives in the home where she grew up.
“It is nothing fancy,” she says. “I am surrounded by pastures, which I like. We see foxes and coyotes. It is peaceful. I have a brother in Winona, Bob Graves, who is retired. It is nice he lives in same town so we can get together from time to time.”
Her parents, Billy and Mary Rae Graves, were in the livestock business. She recalls first being interested in politics at about age 12 when people were giving out bumper stickers for a candidate.
“I thought that was a neat thing to be involved in, a way for a woman to have the opportunity to affect change in a positive way,” she says. “As an adult, before I ran for public office I was often a volunteer for candidates.”
Chassaniol’s mother wanted her to go to an all-female Baptist college. “That sounded dreadful,” Chassaniol recalls. “So, instead, I auditioned and won a music scholarship at Ole Miss.”
Chassaniol fell in love with a Delta boy, Emmett Chassaniol, whose family were cotton farmers in Greenwood for almost 100 years. She graduated with a degree in art education and taught art for about 25 years. After that, she ran the Leflore County dropout prevention program and served on the Mississippi Parole Board from 1997 through 2000. That experience underscored her determination to keep kids in school and out of jail. And the experience helped her later as she is now vice-chair of the Senate Corrections Committee.
Chassaniol has parts of eight counties in her district.
“It is pretty big geographically,” she says. “I could run for governor of Delaware and not put so many miles on my car.”
She also puts on miles to go wherever needed to attend events important to her constituents and to promote tourism.
“I’m a big advocate of tourism to help Mississippi,” Chassaniol says. “We do hospitality very well. There is so much interest in the Delta and in the blues. There are also a lot of people coming to see Cotesworth, the J.Z. George home in Carrollton featured in the movie The Help. We want to make it a culture and heritage center. It is historically important as the Mississippi Constitution was drafted there by J.Z. George. The house was built circa 1840. We managed to get money in a bond bill to purchase the property and five acres and have some money to do restoration.”
Chassaniol says gaming is the industry that is driving tourism right now, bringing in the most out-of-state visitors. She is working to expand that so visitors are more aware of the charm of small towns in Mississippi.
“We are trying to promote rural and small town tourism around our culture and heritage,” she says. “We are working with the Mississippi Department of History and Archives to promote the state’s bicentennial. On Dec. 10, 2017, the state will be 200 years old. We have also worked to get Highway 82 declared the Mississippi Heritage Highway. That starts in Columbus where there is a Tennessee Williams Home and Welcome Center and goes through the Delta with many Blues Trail markers and good museums like the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola.”
To enhance the state’s tourism product, she says the state has to become more competitive with tourism advertising. Currently the state spends less than neighboring states.
“We have to advertise more of the good things about Mississippi, and capitalize on outdoor activities,” she says. “We have a wonderful climate, abundant wildlife, and a rich history. You have to tell your whole story.”
Another effort is working to enhance Mississippi State Parks to encourage people to visit and stay at the parks, especially for the bicentennial next year.
Chassaniol, who serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee, is also keenly aware of the importance of ag to the state and, in particular, to the Delta.
Wherever she goes, it is all about positive interactions.
“I have tried to build relationships throughout my life,” she says. “A lot of folks just don’t know who to turn to in state government. It is an important thing to help connect people to government services.”
She also considers it rewarding to lobby for projects not in her district like the Fanny Lou Hamer Cancer Center in Ruleville where she was successful in obtaining funds for breast cancer support.
Chassaniol says the hardest thing about being in the legislature is that she can’t fix everything.
“I’m a mother, a grandmother, and a former teacher,” she says. “But some things are beyond my comprehension. I try to put people in touch with someone who can help them. There are some situations I can’t fix, but I don’t want anyone to go away and not feel I tried to help. I can’t always say ‘yes,’ but you will always get an answer from me.”
The former art teacher still paints on occasion, but doesn’t have that much time for artwork anymore. But she does find time to cook, including for young single people working at the Capitol. And she makes time to listen.
“To be successful at being a legislator, you have to be interested in a lot of things,” she says. “You have to be interested in everybody’s issue so you can try to help. I couldn’t do anything without my wonderful assistant, Kimberly Parker.”
Another part that is difficult is how nasty some people can be in politics.
“I have had emails that would make your skin crawl,” says Chassaniol, who is a member of the Methodist faith. “Some people wouldn’t be happy no matter what I do. I try to remember that my goal is to help and serve. When I finish my term, when it is all over one day, I just want to be able to say that I did my best to help others. I am a Rotarian, and I like the Rotary motto, ‘Service above self. They profit most who serve the best’. At the conclusion of our time on Earth, we want to know we have done something worthwhile.”
The Chassaniols have two daughters, Mary Rae Chassaniol and Mimi Taylor, and three grandchildren.