Speaking at the Stennis Institute & Capitol Press Corps luncheon this week, Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley said he doesn't care for labels like "pro-business and anti-business" that get thrown around. He argues keeping rates low for small businesses is pro-business, even if it comes at the detriment of publicly regulated utilities and their economic development projects, actions others may term anti-business.

But if you look at Presley's style, roots and philosophy the clear label for his politics is "populism" - a throwback to the rural Hill County anti-corporationism and common man appeal of former Governor and Senator James K. Vardaman (minus Vardaman's racial politics). In his definitive book "Southern Politics in State and Nation," V.O. Key, Jr. quotes Vardaman: "Millionaires produce paupers - the concentration of riches in the hands of the few breeds poverty and squalor among the many." Similar words could have been said by Presley Monday at the Capitol Club in Jackson when he railed against Mississippi Power's new Kemper coal plant. "This is the greatest transfer of wealth from customers to a monopoly in the history of the state of Mississippi," Presley said.

Peppering his speech with references to little old ladies, senior citizens and waitresses "wiping down the table at Waffle House," Presley bragged of going after a utility's use of corporate jets, advertising and his next target: "bloated executive expense and salary packages."

Blessed with a famous name (Elvis was his second cousin), Presley has parlayed his populism into successful politics. Apart from his close ally Attorney General Jim Hood, and Congressman Bennie Thompson (whom Presley calls a friend), Presley is Mississippi's top elected Democrat. First elected as Mayor of Nettleton at age 23, Presley is now serving his second term on the Public Service Commission (PSC). He proudly embraces his party and when speaking of federal spending for broadband internet development, Presley said at the luncheon the problem isn't too little government money, it's not enough, "I don't hear people complaining about that federal money. We need to milk that cow for every dollar we can get."

As a quasi-judicial body, the PSC balances the needs of ratepayers and utilities. Equal justice requires that large corporations be treated fairly even at the expense of consumers. Or in the words of Leviticus, "Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly."

But Presley doesn't see the PSC quite like that. "The Public Service Commission is just what it says...a commission to serve the public. It is not a commission to serve the big utility companies and their lobbyists," Presley said on his campaign web site. That makes for good populism politics as well. It is harder to campaign on being fair than on fighting the big utilities on behalf of the common man - particularly because the companies regulated by the PSC and their employees are prohibited from contributing to the campaigns of PSC candidates. Road builders can contribute to transportation commissioner candidates, lawyers can contribute to judicial candidates, farmers can contribute to candidates running for Agriculture Commissioner and the same goes for insurance agents and candidates for Insurance Commissioner. But those regulated by the PSC cannot contribute in the election of those who will regulate them.

Three elected commissioners comprise the PSC, each from districts roughly a third of the state: central, southern and northern. It began (like its counterpart in Louisiana where Huey Long used it to catapult his populism into higher office) as a railroad regulator and now oversees electric, natural gas, water & sewer and telecommunication utilities. Commissioners exert authority over major companies like Mississippi Power Company, Entergy Mississippi, Atmos and AT&T - which makes it a great place for a populist to rebuke corporate interests on behalf of the "common man."

Presley has used his position, and did so again at the luncheon, to criticize Southern Company and Mississippi Power's coal-to-gas energy facility under construction in Kemper County. Presley has a unique advantage in opposing the Kemper facility. Mississippi Power's customer footprint is largely in the Southern District represented by Commissioner Leonard Bentz; the facility itself is being built in the Central District represented by Commissioner Lynn Posey. Presley, representing the Northern District, is insulated geographically and politically from the facility's impact.

The primary power supplier for Presley's district is the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Presley has called TVA "pro-power company and anti-consumer" and complained that "[President Franklin D. Roosevelt] would be whirling in his grave at what a corporate mammoth TVA has turned into. He never envisioned TVA as a lobby for power companies." However, the PSC does not have regulatory authority over TVA.
Presley did not address new policy positions at Monday's luncheon, but spoke as a proud Democrat and so far, successful Southern populist.

Brian Perry is a columnist for the Madison County Journal and a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. Reach him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.