Northeast Mississippi will soon be the home of one of the nation’s largest automobile manufacturing plants (Toyota) to go along with its more traditional furniture making and other light industrial facilities.

But Mississippi’s — and the nation’s — newest member of Congress believes agriculture still has an important role to play in the economy of the First Congressional District, which covers 24 counties in northeast and central Mississippi.

Travis Childers, a realtor, nursing home owner and former chancery clerk in Prentiss County, won a hard-fought race to fill the seat vacated by Roger Wicker, a Republican. (Gov. Haley Barbour appointed Wicker to fill the un-expired term of former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.)

Shortly after the election, Childers was named to a seat on the House Agriculture Committee, becoming the first Mississippi congressman to serve on the committee since Rep. Bennie Thompson gave up his seat to serve on Homeland Security.

Childers says he believes his quest for the ag committee seat helped him with the election, which he won by 8 percentage points, defeating a Republican, Southaven Mayor Greg Davis.

“About a week before the election, a member of the House leadership called me and asked what they could do to help me,” Childers said in an interview. “I told them I thought naming me to the Agriculture Committee probably would be the best thing they could do.”

The election of a Democrat to Congress in the solidly Republican state of Mississippi stunned many political observers, a fact noted by Washington political analyst Stu Rothenberg, during his speech at the Delta Council annual meeting in Cleveland, Miss.

“I want you to know this guy is a star in Washington,” said Rothenberg, asking Childers to step up to the podium at the beginning of his speech. “Everyone thought the First District of Mississippi was about as safe a seat for Republicans as there was so his victory is the talk of Washington.”

Childers bristles at the suggestion that the seat was a lock for Republicans. “Someone asked me why I thought I had any right to run for this seat,” he said. “My response was that Jamie Whitten, a Democrat, served this district well for more than 40 years, and that I didn’t know Republicans had any divine right to it.”

Childers said he wanted to thank Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., for giving up his seat on the Agriculture Committee. “He told me, ‘Your state should be represented on the Agriculture Committee,’ and I appreciated his willingness to do that.

“They had to grant me a waiver,” he said. “I had been named to a seat on Financial Services. That was in keeping with my background as a small businessman before I was elected chancery clerk.”

Childers is a native of Booneville in Prentiss County, Miss., who worked in a convenience store during high school to support his mother and sister. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1980 from the University of Mississippi.

Childers began selling real estate while he was still a student at Ole Miss. After graduation he worked full time as a Realtor and eventually opened his own real estate firm, Travis Childers Realty & Associates. He and his wife also own a personal care home, Landmark Community, and an 80-bed skilled care facility and Alzheimer’s unit, Landmark Nursing Center.

He entered politics in 1991 when he was elected Prentiss County chancery clerk and held that position through five terms. He served as president of the Mississippi Chancery Clerks Association in 200-02.

Delta Council leaders welcomed Childers’ appointment to the ag committee. “He’s bright and very much in tune with the issues,” said one. “We think he will represent agriculture and Mississippi well.”

e-mail: flaws@farmpress.com