by Patrick Oster
Thad Cochran, a seven-term Republican U.S. senator from Mississippi who was one of the longest-serving members in Congress when he retired in 2018, has died. He was 81.
He passed away early Thursday in Oxford, Mississippi, according to a statement issued on behalf of Cochran’s family by the office of his successor, Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith.
Cochran was chairman of the Appropriations Committee, which governs federal spending, when he retired in April 2018 because of health concerns. He was first elected to the Senate in 1978 after serving three terms in the U.S. House.
Amid increasing political polarization in Washington, Cochran was known for his cordial, gentlemanly approach to getting things done at the Appropriations Committee and, earlier, as chairman of the Agriculture Committee.
“He’s the old school,” Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said when Cochran announced his resignation. “He has always, always, always kept his word, and I wish to heck some other senators around here would learn to do that.”
Cochran also served as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, the No. 3 leadership post, from 1991 to 1997 and tried unsuccessfully to become majority leader in 1996, losing to his state’s other U.S. senator at the time, Trent Lott.
The senator regularly backed measures to reduce spending, control debt and strengthen national defense.
Cochran sometimes strayed from the GOP party line during Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration. He was one of seven Republican senators who declined to sign a March 2015 letter warning Iran’s leaders that any nuclear deal worked out with Obama could be reversed by the next president.
He also broke ranks with more conservative-minded lawmakers to support a $1.8 trillion 2015 omnibus spending measure that avoided a government shutdown.
“His life’s work is imprinted on each of us through his leadership in education, agriculture, hurricane relief, and his calm approach to major issues impacting our state and our country,” Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said in a statement.
Cochran was the quintessential local politician for much of his long tenure. He was known as the “king” of so-called earmarks -- pet projects attached to spending bills to benefit his state. He regularly green-lighted colleagues who wished to do the same, using such favors to move legislation through Congress. In 2006, Time magazine called him “the quiet persuader” after he resolved a major spending fight.
“He’s a classic case of a senator who knows if you’re on the opposite side of a Democrat today, he may be your chief ally tomorrow -- so he just doesn’t burn bridges,” Marty Wiseman, a political science professor at Mississippi State University, said in 2018.
William Thad Cochran, born in Pontotoc, Mississippi, on Dec. 7, 1937, was an Eagle Scout and earned undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Mississippi. He served three years in the U.S. Navy and spent a year abroad studying law at the University of Dublin.
He practiced law for seven years before being elected to the U.S. House at age 34. Initially a Democrat, he switched parties and was the first Republican to win a Mississippi statewide election in more than 100 years when he became a U.S. senator.
He had two children with his wife, Rose Clayton, who died in 2014. He married a longtime staffer, Kay Webber, in 2015.