Dirty Tricks, a Tea Party Suicide and Rising Mississippi Anger

CAMPBELL ROBERTSON / New York Times News Service

JACKSON, Miss. - Mark Mayfield, one of the founders of the Mississippi Tea Party, had lost his political appetite.

He stayed away from Facebook and stopped writing letters to the editor. He went to his law office, but often had little to do, since his major clients had all but cut him off. When the runoff for the Republican primary came around, pitting longtime Sen. Thad Cochran against state Sen. Chris McDaniel, the Tea Party challenger whom Mayfield deeply believed in, friends said Mayfield could not even bring himself to vote.

Then on the morning of June 27, three days after the runoff that left Cochran the victor, Mayfield killed himself.

The story of Mayfield has only deepened the enmity left by a divisive Republican primary. In May, Mayfield was arrested by police officers from the city of Madison and, along with three others, charged with a criminal conspiracy to sneak into a private nursing home and photograph Rose Cochran, the senator’s wife, who has dementia and has been living there for nearly 15 years.

Pictures of Rose Cochran surfaced online briefly, at the end of a video attacking Thad Cochran. The senator’s supporters describe it as among the most appalling dirty tricks they can recall.

Close friends and political colleagues of Mayfield, on the other hand, are infuriated by the treatment of him, which they call unjustifiably heavy-handed. Mayfield, who was accused of helping direct the others to Rose Cochran’s nursing home room but not of taking any pictures, was met at his office by police officers and handcuffed, ordered to post a $250,000 bond and afterward featured in a Cochran campaign commercial, described as a felon.

The Madison police have continued to investigate, and the district attorney is considering whether to present the case to a grand jury.

The Mayfield family has threatened to sue the city of Madison and the Police Department.

“They destroyed that man, and for what?” said Roy Nicholson, who along with Mayfield helped create the state Tea Party. “There is a burning anger in the people that knew Mark Mayfield. And we will not let it go.”

What shocked practically everyone is that Mayfield, routinely described as one of the nicest men in Jackson political circles, ended up at the center of all this. Democrats and the most ardent supporters of Thad Cochran described his cordiality and even temper. This reputation was so widespread that Mayfield customarily served as a liaison between the Tea Party and the politicians it targeted.

“We’ve got a bunch of excitable people who identify with the Tea Party in Mississippi,” said Bill Billingsley, who was involved in the McDaniel campaign. “Mark was the reasonable one.”

Mayfield, who was a 57-year-old father of two, bald and lean as a piece of chalk, was a relative latecomer to politics. He joined his father’s real estate law practice in 1981 and never left, taking over after his father died. He was so averse to confrontation that he set up an arrangement with a lawyer at another firm: Mayfield would handle the largely administrative parts of any foreclosure process, the other lawyer any bankruptcy or litigation.

“He just didn’t have it in him,” said James Renfroe, the lawyer who worked with him. “He didn’t understand sometimes why not everybody would like him. I explained: ‘We’re in a litigation battle. People are not going to like you.’”

But when Mayfield found a new passion - be it mountain biking or conservative politics - he pursued it with vigor.

“We are doomed as a nation if President Obama continues his deficit spending at unprecedented levels,” he wrote in one of his frequent letters to Mississippi newspapers. “The middle-class citizens are in deep trouble unless we turn around now,” he said in another.

In early 2009, he and several others sat in a cafeteria in Jackson and planned the state’s first major Tea Party rally, attended by Phil Bryant, the current governor, who at the time was lieutenant governor, as well as McDaniel.

In recent years, Mayfield had grown uncomfortable with rhetorical excesses of some of his Tea Party allies and was unmoved by some of the hot-button issues of the day like Common Core education standards, friends said. But he appeared re-energized by McDaniel’s Senate campaign.

“He was trying to do whatever he could,” recalled Kim Wade, a Jackson-based talk-radio host. “He was all in.”

On Sunday, April 20, Clayton Kelly, a little-known 28-year-old blogger, walked through the halls of St. Catherine’s Village, a gated retirement community in the affluent suburb of Madison, and found Rose Cochran’s room in the wing for Alzheimer’s patients. Kelly took a short video of her, lying on her bed in a nightgown, with his phone.

On April 26, he included photographs of her in a campaign video on his blog, Constitutional Clayton, drawing a contrast between Thad Cochran’s life as a senator, recounting his travels with a longtime female aide, and the life of the senator’s ailing wife. The video was taken down quickly, but not before it had drawn the attention of the Cochran campaign.

“It was a desperate and disgusting attempt to smear Sen. Cochran’s good name,” said Austin Barbour, a senior Cochran campaign adviser.

Most people did not learn about the video until later, and when they did they were aghast.

“The last person who should have been brought into this campaign should have been Rose, because she was the most defenseless and had such dignity,” said Brad White, a former chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Three weeks later, on May 16, Kelly was arrested and charged with exploitation of a vulnerable person, a felony.

The police were given access to Kelly’s Facebook exchanges, which showed him discussing the plan with John Mary of Hattiesburg, once the co-host of a conservative talk-radio show that McDaniel previously hosted and regularly appeared on.

According to those exchanges, which were examined by The New York Times, as well as interviews with people briefed on the case, Mary and Kelly hoped to propel rumors about the state of Thad Cochran’s marriage that had been circulated on social media by McDaniel supporters as a kind of subterranean campaign issue. Kelly and Mary planned to make a video, but were unsure how to get a current picture of Cochran’s wife in the nursing home.

Mayfield did not take part in these exchanges. But he was contacted at one point, apparently by Mary, and asked to take Rose Cochran’s picture, since his own mother was in St. Catherine’s. He declined. Instead, according to the message traffic, he agreed to set Kelly up with someone else - a person who has not been named or charged - who could help him find his way around the nursing home.

On May 22, six days after Kelly’s arrest, three police officers arrived at Mayfield’s law office, searched his computers and led him away in handcuffs. He, Mary and Richard Sager, a physical education teacher involved in the planning of the online video, were charged with conspiracy, accused of helping Kelly. Kelly was charged again, this time under the felony voyeurism statute.

Mayfield, whose arrest stunned people all across Jackson, had the most visible ties to the McDaniel campaign, which scrambled, at times inconsistently, to distance itself from the nursing home photos. The Cochran campaign highlighted the connection in ads showing Mayfield, and the nursing home episode dominated headlines with less than two weeks to go before the June 3 primary.

Supporters of Mayfield have raised suspicions about the timing of the arrests, so close to the primary, and about whether Madison’s mayor, Mary Hawkins Butler, a stalwart and enthusiastic supporter of Cochran, played any role.

“There is a feeling among dozens and dozens of people that Mark was used for political purposes,” said Merrida Coxwell, Mayfield’s lawyer at the time of his arrest. “People charged with murder can get bonds less than $250,000.”

And even some lawyers unconnected with the case, while condemning the nursing home photos, express doubts as to whether these felony charges were justified.

Cochran’s lawyer, Donald Clark, in an email message, said that Cochran and his lawyers “took the necessary time to investigate the facts and conduct legal research concerning the issues” before going to Butler on May 14 to ask that she have her police chief view the video. He added: “We did not delay our response to this incident due to any political issues or timing.”

The mayor declined to comment, citing the investigation. A spokesman for the police did not return several calls. A spokesman for Mayfield’s family declined to comment as well.

No one can say for sure why someone takes his life. Mayfield left a note, the contents of which have not been released. But friends say Mayfield did not seem himself after the arrest. Almost immediately, his major clients distanced themselves, though he was able to do some work because of his arrangement with Renfroe.

Friends told him the charge would most likely fall part or at most end up being reduced to a misdemeanor, but this did not console him.

“What I believe from what I know about Mark,” Wade, the talk-radio host, said, “he just personally felt that he had let everybody down.”