William E. “Bill” Spell, who died on October 12 at the age of 96, was the last great figure in the dirtiest and bizarre political campaign in state history remembered by most of the Mississippi in 1983.
To say that Spell lived an interesting and impactful life is an understatement. Born in the small hamlet of Georgetown, Copiah County, Spell graduated from local high school in 1944 and then enlisted in the US Army Air Corps, where he served his country with honor during World War II.
After the war, Spell graduated from Mississippi College and later Mississippi College School of Law.
His professional career has been varied – he was radio announcer, newspaper reporter, managing director of energy trading associations, personnel assistant to the legendary US Senator John C. Stennis, was an executive at one of the leading advertising agencies in the state and finally made a successful entry into the private legal profession.
Spell’s media, trade associations, and government services brought him into the midst of a number of actors on the state’s political scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
From this point of view, Spell organized – in large measure at the behest of successful Jackson businessmen and Republican supporters Billy Mounger, Neal Clement and Victor Smith – an investigation into then Democratic Attorney General Bill Allain that shocked Mississippi politics and attracted national attention.
Without question, the 1983 Mississippi gubernatorial campaign was the dirtiest campaign seen in the state before or after. The campaign between Allain, Republican candidate Leon Bramlett, and independents Charles Evers, Billy Taylor and Helen Williams was shaken when Allain was showered with allegations of sexual association with three black male transvestite prostitutes two weeks before the November general election.
Put simply, about 40 years ago, Allain was accused of behaving that no mainstream Mississippi politician could survive at the time. But Allain did.
Allain – a divorced Natchez attorney and a US Army infantry veteran in the Korean conflict – led Bramlett with 25 popularity polls before the Spell-led GOP group revealed their allegations against him.
Allain vehemently denied the allegations. Bramlett asked Allain to take a polygraph test, and Allain eventually complied – and published results suggesting he was telling the truth.
The allegations sparked a state and national media circus – with an appearance by Geraldo Rivera – who interviewed the three prostitutes and aired a story in which all three withdrew their previous allegations against Allain.
But after taking up the allegations and watching the national and local media circus, Mississippi voters simply did not buy the allegations. Voters not only rejected the charges against Allain, but also politically rebuked the Republicans who made them.
Allain won the election – he served 74 of the state’s 82 counties – and continued to serve a productive tenure as governor despite complaints that he spent the term somewhat withdrawn at the Governor’s Mansion after the rough, sleazy campaign.
Was Allain guilty of the charges or simply the victim of malicious slander? As a journalist, I didn’t know 40 years ago and I don’t know today. But I know that the majority of Mississippi voters believed in Allain – enough confidence to elect him governor and enough to reject the campaign tactics that threatened his election.
The Allain Inquiry changed Mississippi politics, campaign tactics, and attitudes about how far campaigning can or should go and what Mississippi voters would tolerate. There were also classes for the media.
Spell, Mounger, and others who campaigned against Allain in 1983 never wavered in their belief that they had a “duty” to pass on the information. Allain died in 2013. Mounger, Clement and Smith also died.
Bill Spell was an easy-going but intense personality who played for victory in all things.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at [email protected]