Mid-South farmers have known for a long time that Sen. Thad Cochran was one of the region’s best-kept secrets. Working mostly “behind the scenes,” the senior senator from Mississippi has probably done more to help producers stay afloat in the last 20 years than any other member of Congress.

Now the rest of the country is beginning to see what a quiet force Cochran can be thanks to an article in Time magazine. Time recently selected Cochran as one of the 10 best senators in the 109th Congress, based on interviews with dozens of academics, political scientists and current and former senators.

The article’s authors, Perry Bacon Jr. and Massimo Calabresi, note that just about anyone can be a U.S. senator by meeting the minimum age qualification (30), being a resident of the state they represent and a U.S. citizen for nine years. But, they say, it takes a special set of talents to be a great one.

“When the Louisiana congressional delegation publicly demanded a staggering $250 billion from the government to rebuild the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, the move completely backfired,” they wrote. “It angered conservatives, who spent the next two months pushing for cuts in the budget and ignoring Louisiana and Mississippi. Then Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran got tough on behalf of his state.”

The authors cited a closed-door meeting last December, in which Republican senators were talking about how to quickly pass a bill that would provide money for the Defense Department so lawmakers could go home for the holidays.

“Sen. Cochran simply announced that ‘this bill won’t pass’ unless it includes money for the Gulf Coast,” they wrote.

“As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Cochran wields considerable power on Capitol Hill, particularly on budget issues,” they said. “But along with that post, Cochran has gained the trust of the Administration and Capitol Hill for his quiet, courtly manner that is evident whether he is playing the piano in his office or using his experience and mastery of the issues to persuade his colleagues privately rather than making demands on them in public.

“I don’t call lots of news conferences,” Cochran is quoted as saying in the article. “I just don’t see that as a necessary part of my responsibilities.”

On Katrina, Cochran, along with other Gulf Coast lawmakers, created a detailed list of the region’s essential needs that totaled about $35 billion. He then had dozens of meetings with other lawmakers, emphasizing how badly the region needed the money but never publicly blasting Congress for moving too slowly.

In the end, Cochran won approval for $29 billion for Gulf Coast relief efforts. The amount was nearly double the money President Bush and congressional leaders had initially pledged for rebuilding the hurricane-ravaged region.

First elected in 1976, Cochran is often overshadowed in Washington by the junior senator from his state, the ambitious and often controversial Trent Lott, the article said. But Cochran, 68, has carved several niches for himself, including becoming one of the few senators well-versed on farm policy.

“He doesn’t get a whole lot of play in terms of coverage,” says a senior GOP senator, “but he is effectively stubborn doing what needs to be done.”

The other senators named to the list include: Kent Conrad, D-N.D.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.; Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.; Carl Levin, D-Mich.; Richard Lugar, R-Ind.; John McCain, R-Ariz.; Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine; and Arlen Specter, R-Pa.

e-mail: flaws@farmpress.com