Shawn O’Hara ran in every Hattiesburg election since 1989. He ran for Mississippi’s 3rd congressional district religiously, for Governor of Mississippi twice in the 90s and and in 2011 and 2015 and for U.S. Senate in a 2002 challenge to the then U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in which he received his highest electoral margin, 15.42 percent of the vote, as a lone challenger. Anyone that knew O’Hara knew one thing: he was going to be on your ballot whether you liked it or not.
Last Tuesday, O’Hara was found dead in his home in Hattiesburg, leaving behind a legacy as one of the most colorful figures in state politics. He was 60 years old.
O’Hara’s platform was never simple and often contradictory. He ran as a Democrat, Republican, Independent and a Reform candidate throughout his quest for elected office.
While O’Hara often didn’t have campaign money to spend, he would produce handwritten campaign brochures promising the legalization of marijuana, both higher and lower taxes on gasoline, the reinstatement of Colonel Reb as the university’s mascot, armed security
in public schools and even state-sponsored snow cone stands to generate revenue for public works projects. Even the great author John Grisham couldn’t write a character as eccentric as O’Hara, but on second thought, I’m not convinced anyone could.
O’Hara always stayed true to what he was — a perennial candidate longing for the spotlight he felt he deserved, a spotlight he would be granted as he was viciously mocked in the political arena, criticisms which were often well deserved. As a Reform party candidate in 2004, O’Hara received a smattering of headlines regarding his public statements advocating for the execution of physicians who provide abortions and his support for the convicted murderer and former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Samuel Bowers. Just a year prior, O’Hara debuted his production “Rebel Lady” at the 2003 Reform Party convention, a romantic comedy which he claimed to be a culmination of three previously self-published books. Featuring a diverse cast, O’Hara characterized the film as a gesture to demonstrate that Mississippi had achieved racial harmony. The film was said to have received mixed reviews.
O’Hara didn’t get to vote for himself in the 2018 midterm election in which he was challenging incumbent U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker as a Reform candidate — he was already dead — but it would take three weeks for anybody to notice.
It was often unclear why O’Hara was running. Maybe he just wanted people to care. If so, perhaps the greatest tragedy of O’Hara’s life was not his electoral failures, but rather his ultimate demise — a man who devoted his life to seeking notoriety dying alone and forgotten in Hattiesburg.
It’s rare we try to understand one another these days. We seek easy answers to confirm our beliefs about people, often missing a chance to connect with someone we don’t see as our equal, waiting until it’s too late to analyze the impact they had on our lives. In O’Hara’s passing, journalists who long made a portion of their living mocking O’Hara’s dream cried in the loss of the man who was the topic of so many of their cruel jokes. I find it hard to believe that many of these people will truly miss the late father of one. Rather, it is more likely they will miss invoking his name in jest.
I never knew or voted for O’Hara, but maybe the legacy he leaves behind for our state isn’t in his politics, but rather in our reflection following his passing. Everybody needs somebody whether you’re Shawn O’Hara or just another face in the crowd. We should all try and be the person that’s there for those in our lives and appreciate each other while we’re here, even if that means state-sponsored snow cones.
Will Hall is a senior journalism major from Atlanta.