JACKSON, Miss. – Former Gov. Kirk Fordice (search), a hard-nosed no-nonsense businessman who became Mississippi's first Republican governor in 116 years, died Tuesday of leukemia at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. He was 70.
Funeral arrangements were pending.
A statement released by the Fordice family said the governor had received calls, letters and prayers from people across the state.
"The people he served while in office served to lift his spirits during his final days," the statement read. "We would like to express our gratitude to all of those who have been so kind to our father and to our entire family over the years.
"Our father built a family, a business and a political life all with a strong sense of purpose and resolve that few people possess. We will miss his indomitable spirit, his zest for life and his passionate views about our world and how to make it a better place. Most of all we will simply miss the man we called 'Dad' and Mississippi called 'Governor.'
"Our father loved this country and especially Mississippi. We know that heaven for him now is a place very much like it," the statement read.
Fordice served as governor from 1992-2000, becoming the first Mississippi chief executive to succeed himself. The former governor had been ill for several weeks.
He confirmed in August that he had been diagnosed with a form of leukemia. He would not say what type of leukemia he has.
Jim Ingram, a former FBI agent who was Fordice's head of the Highway Patrol for eight years, said Tuesday that the Fordice family had been with the former governor "for several days knowing death was near."
"He will be remembered for his integrity, his character," Ingram said.
Fordice's health had been in question since midway through his first term. 1998, the cancer returned and he underwent additional radiation treatment weeks later.
Fordice suffered near-fatal injuries in a one-car crash on Interstate 55 in 1996. In July 2000, he had gallbladder surgery.
Against the odds the Vicksburg self-made millionaire upset incumbent Ray Mabus (search) in 1991 to become Mississippi's first Republican governor since carpetbagger Adelbert Ames left office in 1876.
But his first days were rocky for the Reaganite Republican (search). Just a few days after a glorious swearing in he threatened to call out the National Guard if the state was ordered to spend more money on its three historically black colleges.
What followed was a string of comments that upset various groups. Jewish groups were outraged by his reference to the United States as a "Christian nation." Environmentalists were upset by his reference to them as "tree huggers," and Fordice referred to the governor of neighboring Louisiana as a nitwit.
But despite that, the silver-haired grandfather only seemed to grow more popular with conservative Mississippians. He led a push for an income tax reduction, helped the Legislature craft welfare reform and touted anti-crime plans.
His closest political disaster came in 1993, when he revealed that he was having "irreconcilable differences" with his wife of 40 years, Pat. Mrs. Fordice, through a terse press release, said she had no intention of getting a divorce and seemed to win public sentiment.
The couple reconciled, temporarily. In November 1996 Fordice was seriously injured while driving back from Memphis, where employees of a Germantown, Tenn., restaurant said they had seen Fordice eating lunch and drinking wine with a blonde, middle-aged woman.
Later, after calling for President Clinton to resign following a sex scandal involving a White House intern, he had another public affair.
He had said, "Stop the stonewalling, stop the obfuscation and tell the American people the real truth."
Then, in June 1999, he was caught on television, returning home from a vacation to France with his high school sweetheart.
Fordice told the WLBT reporter that his private life was not news.
"Let me tell you something, you invade my privacy this way, six months from now, I'll whip your ass. You have no damn business playing these games," the governor told Case.
Then he made his divorce plans public. Shortly after Fordice left office in January, 2000, he married Ann G. Creson of Memphis, Tenn., after his 44-year marriage was dissolved. He and Creson later divorced.
His most raucous debates were over racial issues.
Black lawmakers, angered by Fordice's push for term limits, walked out on his 1994 state of the state address.
In his 1996 inaugural speech, he touched on race again and said "Mississippi doesn't do race anymore."
"The 1960's are over. This is 1996 and we want to be judged by our deeds here and now and not by what happened then and there. We will acknowledge our history, but we will not let it determine our future. The only race that we're concerned with is the race for more jobs, for better schools, for safer neighborhoods and the race for lower taxes," he said.
In 1996 he tried to push the Senate to confirm four white men to the College Board. After a committee refused to take up the appointments, he called senators back into a special session and created a furor over racial diversity.
After a court battle over the nominees, and a second failure in the Senate, Fordice backed down and made four new picks including a black man and a white woman.
Part of Fordice's success was centered around the state's strong economy, in part fueled by the casino gambling industry. Fordice was a casino opponent.
Marvin Overby, associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi, has described Fordice as "John Wayne-esque."
"He's survived some personal things that have ended the careers of other politicians," Overby said.
Mississippi's unemployment rate was 3.8 percent during his last year in office, the lowest jobless figure in the state in 26 years.
His contracting business was turned over to his four children.
The former Vicksburg contractor was born in Memphis, Tenn., on Feb 10, 1934. He had been living in Madison.