- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 22, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi and the nation would be better served with more racial diversity within the Democratic and Republican parties, former Gov. Haley Barbour said Tuesday at one of the state’s historically black universities.

“We do not need a white party versus a black one. We need two salt-and-pepper parties,” Barbour, who was Republican National Committee chairman in the mid-1990s, told a majority-black audience of more than 100 people at Jackson State University.

“We need two parties made up of people of both races, in fact, people of all races as we have seen our demography change in Mississippi, more Hispanics coming to the state, more Asians coming to the state,” he said.

Democrats controlled Mississippi politics for generations, but the state has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1980.

During Barbour’s time as governor from 2004 to 2012, Republicans increased their presence in the Mississippi Legislature. For the past four years, Republicans have controlled the state House and Senate. But, there are no black Republican lawmakers in the state with a 37 percent black population.

Barbour, 67, asked the audience of high school and college students to consider voting for Republicans.

“I worry when I look at you because just as I grew up in a one-party system, many of you in your community still have a one-party system,” Barbour said. “And I want to talk to you today about is why I think there are benefits for African-Americans to adopt within a competitive two-party system.”

Five students served on a panel that asked questions of Barbour. One of them, Juan Knight, said he had asked his grandmother if she’s planning to vote for Hillary Clinton for president in 2016.

“She said, ‘Of course. I always vote Democrat,’” Knight said.

Another student panelist, Isaiah Brydie, said he considers himself an independent. He said he shares some beliefs with Democrats and some with Republicans but doesn’t like the bickering between the parties.

“I don’t want to be part of any of that scene,” Brydie told Barbour.

Barbour said he grew up in a family of Democrats in Yazoo City and became a Republican when he was a senior at the University of Mississippi. In 1968, he led Republican Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign in the state.

“I look at you and think of me and white Mississippi in the 1950s and ‘60s, hoping you will overcome the mistakes that we made for so long, that you will decide, ‘I’m going to vote for who I think it the best person. I’m going to affiliate with who I think is the better party and I’m not going to let party get in the way of voting for the best person,’” Barbour said.

In a phone interview after Barbour’s speech, Mississippi Democratic Party chairman Rickey Cole excoriated the former governor’s remarks.

“Those are some awfully ironic comments when you consider the source,” Cole, who did not attend the speech, told The Associated Press. “Haley Barbour was part of that first wave of Nixon Southern Strategy that was a racial appeal from the very beginning…. There was a decision made by the Republican powers-that-be in the late ‘60s that in the South they would wink and nod at racial prejudice in order to curry favor with Caucasians who were reactionary on issues of race.

“Haley Barbour was present at the beginning of that,” Cole said. “His entire political career has been as a practitioner and beneficiary of racial politics. So now in his fat and happy old age, he has decided to sit back and say, ‘Can’t we all just get along?’”

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: https://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.

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