Chester Trent Lott served more than thirty-four years as a US representative and US senator from Mississippi. Son of Chester Paul Lott, a sharecropper, laborer, and pipefitter at Ingalls Shipbuilders in Pascagoula, and Iona Watson Lott, a schoolteacher, Lott was born in Grenada on 9 October 1941. An only child educated in the public schools of Pascagoula, Lott was active in music and drama and enjoyed wide popularity, winning election as homecoming king and student body president. Lott enrolled at the University of Mississippi in 1959 and went on to earn degrees in public administration (1963) and law (1967). While in school Lott joined the Sigma Nu social fraternity, was a cheerleader, and served as president of his fraternity and of the Interfraternity Council. Lott worked industriously to make friends, build alliances, and hone the political skills that would serve him well during his years in Washington.
After briefly practicing law in Pascagoula, Lott went to Washington as a legislative assistant for US Rep. William M. Colmer of the state’s 5th District. Colmer, a Democrat who represented the Gulf Coast in the House from 1933 to 1973, was the powerful chair of the House Rules Committee. Like many southern Democrats, Colmer had become uncomfortable with the party’s attention to civil rights measures. He joined the rest of Mississippi’s congressional delegation in signing the 1956 Southern Manifesto denouncing the Brown decision and increasingly threw his support to Republican candidates for the presidency. Colmer announced his intention to retire in 1972, and local Republicans recruited Lott to run under their banner. Colmer offered his endorsement. Lott was elected as Republican Richard Nixon won 78 percent of the state’s votes. Lott was joined in Congress in 1973 by fellow freshman representative Thad Cochran, a strong indication of the state’s growing attachment to the Republican Party.
Lott served in the House from 1973 to 1989, easily winning reelection every two years and running unopposed in 1978. Lott became the first southern Republican elected minority whip and held that position from 1981 to 1989. Lott also followed in Colmer’s footsteps in serving on the House Rules Committee from 1975 to 1989. Lott was known for his interest in tax and budget measures, for his skill in compromise and making deals, and for his support of defense spending and farm subsidy programs. He ran for the Senate in 1988 when veteran Democrat John C. Stennis retired after more than forty years of service. Lott defeated a fellow member of Congress, Wayne Dowdy, a Democrat who represented Mississippi’s 4th District and was the former mayor of McComb. Lott handily won reelection to the Senate in 1994, 2000, and 2006. From 1995 to 1996 Lott served as his party’s whip in the Senate, making him the first person to hold that position in both houses of Congress. In 1996 Lott was elected Senate majority leader, a post he held until the Republicans lost control of the Senate in the 2000 elections. He then became Senate minority leader.
During his time in the House and Senate, Lott followed two consistent principles: to support the fortunes of the Republican Party in Mississippi and the nation, and to bring economic development to the state, either through federal spending on military bases and highway programs or through recruiting aerospace and automobile companies. Lott’s conservative voice on social issues, combined with his ability to deliver services to his constituents, gained him a wide political following in the state.
Lott generated national controversy at a December 2002 party celebrating the one hundredth birthday of South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, who in 1948 had run for the presidency on the segregationist Dixiecrat ticket with Mississippi governor Fielding Wright as his running mate. Mississippi supported the Dixiecrats, and Lott remarked that the nation would have been better off if it had followed Mississippi’s lead. Criticism of Lott’s remarks forced him to resign as minority leader. The Bush White House’s conspicuous lack of support became a sore point for Lott, but his popularity at home remained undiminished, and he won reelection in 2006 with 64 percent of the vote. In 2007 he gained a measure of redemption when he defeated Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander in the race for minority whip.
In November of that year, however, Lott surprised most constituents and political observers by announcing his intention to resign from the Senate effective 18 December 2007. Gov. Haley Barbour appointed US representative Roger Wicker to fill the remainder of Lott’s term. In January 2008 Lott and former senator John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, announced the formation of the Breaux-Lott Leadership Group, a Washington-based consulting and lobbying firm.
Lott, a Mason and a Southern Baptist, married Patricia Thompson in 1964, and they went on to have two children, Chester Trent Lott Jr. and Tyler Lott Armstrong. Lott and his wife live in their Gulfport home, which they rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina. In 2005 Lott published a memoir, Herding Cats: A Life in Politics.
- Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (2007)
- Jere Nash and Andy Taggart, Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976–2006 (2006)