By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Phil Bryant is excited.
He is talking like a man who knows what he plans to do if he becomes governor. And the smart money is on the 56-year-old Republican succeeding Gov. Haley Barbour, who is term-limited.
On the way to a recent campaign stop, Bryant, who is finishing his first term as lieutenant governor, talked about increasing the number of physicians in the state using a variety of methods, including targeted tax breaks, working to establish a “medical city” in downtown Jackson, revamping the state budgeting system and working to establish charter schools and continuing to study the effectiveness of early childhood education.
Bryant, early on, said he would run “a campaign of ideas and issues…about creating the most jobs-friendly state in America and call it Mississippi.”
He is more than willing to talk about those ideas, which are conservative to the core, and also about the fact that he believes he is the only candidate with the experience to step into the Governor’s Mansion without the state missing a beat.
Others are trying to make a campaign issue out of the fact they say he is “a career politicians.”
Bryant, in his typical good-natured, talk-show host style, downplays the career-politican attack. “If I were a liberal Democrat that might work – if what I had been doing as lieutenant governor went against conservative values,” he said, saying that those making the attacks are criticizing a Barbour-Bryant administration.
Bryant has been an outspoken advocate as lieutenant governor for various conservative social issues, such as illegal immigration legislation.
It was another conservative Republican governor who first thrust Phil Bryant on to the statewide scene. Kirk Fordice named Bryant, who was in his fifth year in the state House from Rankin County, to the vacant office of auditor in 1996. Before then, Bryant had served as a deputy sheriff and in other law enforcement-type positions, such as insurance fraud investigator.
Bryant, who has an undergraduate degree in criminal justice from the University of Southern Mississippi and master’s degree in political science from Mississippi College, is now an adjunct professor at MC.
In 1996, the fiery Fordice selected Bryant to the open auditor’s seat 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.”
At the time, Fordice even mentioned Bryant as a potential gubernatorial candidate. But Bryant recently said at that time he was not thinking about the Governor’s Mansion.
“My Daddy was a diesel mechanic,” said Bryant, a a native of the Delta town of Moorehead, 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.”
Yet in Rankin County the law enforcement officer got involved with the county’s massive Republican political machine. He ran in and lost a race for county supervisor in the 1980s. But, in 1991, he was elected to the state House where he soon became a leader of what was then a small group of Republicans in the chamber.
In three statewide races – two for auditor and one for lieutenant governor – he has never failed to garner at least 55 percent of the vote.
Some believe he will win the Governor’s Mansion by a similar margin, but Bryant is not taking anything for granted. He is traveling the state, has a sizable money lead over his opponents and has picked up numerous key endorsements.
At a recent event, he received the endorsement of the Mississippi Medical Association, which is made up of the state’s doctors. At the event, he talked about his goal to make Mississippi a healthier state.
But he also had time for small talk. He tells one doctor it is almost time for his cardiology checkup. Bryant, tall and lean, looks the picture of health, but he says he has the checkups because his father died of heart disease.
He lamented to one doctor that he is not getting to run as much because of the campaign – admitting that sporadic running has made it difficult for him to endure the excessive heat.
“I ran Sunday and I was doing an 11-minute mile. But it is my only stress release,” Bryant said.
But Bryant added, “I really enjoy campaigning.”
Follow him around for a while, listening to his chatter and exuberance, and those words sound believable.
“Campaigning is part of it, part of America. It is the price you pay for the honor of being a public servant,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, who previously served as the Appropriations chair in the Senate, was appointed to the post by Bryant and has known Bryant since 1995 when Nunnelee came to the Legislature.
“From the first day we met, I have known him to be an effective advocate for the conservative cause,” Nunnelee wrote in announcing why he is endorsing Bryant.
Nunnelee added, “While no one can predict the specific issues and decisions that will confront our next governor, with Phil Bryant making those decisions, I am confident our state is in good hands.”
Bryant says he is not only ready to confront any unforeseen issues, but also has a host of issues he wants to tackle if the prognosticators are correct and he is the state’s next governor.
He said to rest assured he would tackle those issues in a conservative – if not excitable – way.