JACKSON — The Mississippi House will take on a whole new personality in January when the 122 members choose their new speaker, and the internal campaign for the job is well under way.
Populist Democrat Billy McCoy has been speaker the past eight years. The 68-year-old worm farmer from Rienzi announced this past week that he won’t seek re-election to the House seat he first won in 1979. That cleared the way for an all-out battle for the chamber’s top job.
Rep. Jeff Smith of Columbus is a conservative Democrat who challenged McCoy for the speakership in 2008. Smith, an attorney, is running for the House this year as an independent and says he’s in the speaker’s race.
Republican Rep. Sidney Bondurant, a physician from Grenada, is actively running for speaker. So is Democrat Rep. Bobby Moak of Bogue Chitto, an attorney and current chairman of the House Gaming Committee.
Republican Rep. Philip Gunn of Clinton, who’s an attorney, says some members have approached him about running for speaker. Republican Rep. Herb Frierson of Poplarville, a real estate broker, says he also has been approached. Neither is ruling it out.
Democrat Rep. Tyrone Ellis of Starkville, who’s a pastor and businessman, says he has entertained the thought of running for speaker and he’s also not saying no at this point.
“The whole of the 122 members, whether they admit it or not, have thought about running for speaker before,” Ellis said with a chuckle this past week. “They all have thought about it at one time or another.”
The House speakership is one of the most powerful jobs in Mississippi politics, and it’s one in which voters have only an indirect voice. The governor and lieutenant governor are elected on the statewide ballot, but the speaker is chosen by the House members at the beginning of each four-year term.
The speaker and the lieutenant governor have similar duties. Each presides over one chamber of the Legislature. Each appoints committee chairmen and assigns bills to committees, actions that can help determine whether proposals live or die.
The speaker and the lieutenant governor both serve on the 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Committee, and they take turns serving as chairman.
McCoy was unanimously elected speaker in January 2004. The job was open because Democrat Tim Ford of Baldwyn, an attorney who’d held the job since 1988, chose to step away from the House, as McCoy is doing now.
McCoy has a flair for down-home turns of phrase and has been an outspoken advocate for education, transportation and health care. While many lawmakers wine and dine on lobbyists’ tabs, McCoy has enjoyed a less extravagant existence, often enjoying sandwiches or Vienna sausages with fellow lawmakers at the Jackson hotels that were their in-session homes away from home.
McCoy’s first term as speaker coincided with Republican Haley Barbour’s first term as governor. Barbour headed the Republican National Committee from 1993 to 1997, and brought a more distinctly partisan style than many lawmakers, including McCoy, had been accustomed to seeing in Mississippi politics.
The 2008 speaker’s race was a nail-biter, with McCoy receiving 62 votes and Smith receiving 60. All the Republicans voted for Smith — and when it came time for McCoy make appointments, he didn’t give a single chairmanship to a Republican.
McCoy has been fiercely loyal to his House allies. Members of the Legislative Black Caucus supported McCoy in the 2008, and he appointed a record number of black chairmen.
McCoy often chafed at what he saw as Barbour’s control over the Republican-friendly Senate. During his first term as speaker, Democrat-turned-Republican Amy Tuck was in her second term as lieutenant governor. During McCoy’s second term as speaker, the lieutenant governor has been Republican Phil Bryant, who’s now running for governor.
Barbour is term-limited, and January 2012 will be the first time in a generation for Mississippi to get a new governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker at once. The last time was in January 1976, when Cliff Finch of Batesville was inaugurated as governor, Evelyn Gandy of Hattiesburg was inaugurated as lieutenant governor and C.B. “Buddie” Newman of Valley Park was elected speaker. All were Democrats.
Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press