By Bobby Harrison | NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – When Republican Phil Bryant is sworn in Tuesday as the state’s 64th governor, he will enter the office with more experience as an elective official in state government than recent occupants of the post.
Bryant, 57, will be entering his sixth term as a state elected official. Not since William Winter, who served as governor from 1980-84 and had previously held numerous state elected offices, has a governor had similar experience in state government.
Bryant will be replacing Haley Barbour, who had never held a position in state government until he was elected governor in 2003 and re-elected in 2007. Barbour is constitutionally prohibited from seeking a third term.
Bryant was first elected to the state House in 1991 and re-elected in 1995. But early in his second term – in 1996 – then-Gov. Kirk Fordice appointed Bryant to the vacant post of state auditor after incumbent Steve Patterson had to resign because of legal issues.
The Rankin County Republican was re-elected state auditor twice, and in 2007, he won the open seat of lieutenant governor.
Bryant said he is looking forward to Tuesday’s inauguration and his work as governor.
“We have some exciting activities planned for the inauguration, and we want to invite all Mississippians to attend and be a part of this celebration,” Bryant said. “I am ready to take the oath of office and continue working to improve our great state.
“The theme of this inauguration is ‘Rising Together,’ and I am hopeful state leaders will work together for a fruitful and productive year in Mississippi.”
In many ways, the ascent to the office of governor seems a logical next step for an official Fordice hinted more than 15 years ago could be governor one day.
In 1996, the blunt-spoken Fordice said he selected Bryant to the open seat of auditor because “he’s a whole lot better than me at getting along with folks and he’s just as conservative. It’s a two-fer.”
Back in 1996, Fordice even mentioned Bryant as a potential gubernatorial candidate. But Bryant recently said at the time he was not thinking about the Governor’s Mansion.
“My Daddy was a diesel mechanic,” said Bryant, a Moorhead native whose family later moved to Jackson where he graduated from high school. “We were in a blue-collar world. I never dreamed of being in public service. I don’t think we ever met a governor.”
From those non-politician beginnings, Bryant has proven to be quite the politician. In four statewide races, he has never garnered less than 55 percent of the vote and won 61 percent in the November election for governor.
When Bryant was running for lieutenant governor in 2007, Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, who was Bryant’s deskmate in the House, said he was a natural leader and natural politician.
“He is one of those guys who is comfortable at a county club banquet or at a deer camp breakfast campfire,” Formby said at he time. “He knows people and enjoys people. He enjoys all types of people.”
Bryant, who has touted various social conservative issues, handles a speech with the ease of a television game show host.
Bryant is a former law enforcement officer who later became a investigator for an insurance company. He got involved with the massive Rankin County Republican Party machine and said he decided to run for office after hearing his political hero, Ronald Reagan, speak about the importance of public service during a visit to the White House.
He lost his first race for Rankin County supervisor, but has been on a roll ever since.