Fair reveals where GOP divides

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – On the surface, it appeared that all members of the state’s Republican leadership were on the same page during two days of political speeches in the searing heat of the Neshoba County Fair last week.
Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann spoke of what an honor it was to be the “warm-up” for Gov. Phil Bryant.
Bryant praised House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves for being dynamic, up-and-coming leaders in the party.
“It was a pleasure working with the first Republican speaker of the House since Reconstruction,” said Reeves, 38, of the 49-year-old Gunn. “As a team, Speaker Gunn, Gov. Bryant and I passed strong, conservative legislation. We completed the session on time and saved money.”
But the 2012 session proved that the Republican leadership was not on the same page on every issue.
That should not be surprising. For decades when the Democrats controlled every aspect of state government, they weren’t either.
Earlier in the week speaking in a vastly different setting – an air-conditioned Jackson high-rise – to the media and other political observers, state Republican Party Chair Joe Nosef painted a predictability rosy picture of a political party that by anyone’s standards has sizable momentum in Mississippi.
But Nosef did warn that the party’s “challenge is unity.” He went on to add, “The Tea Party is an important part of what the Republican Party is trying to accomplish.”
Perhaps it was happenstance that Nosef mentioned the Tea Party so soon after talking about the need for unity. But it is no secret that what the Tea Party wants and what some more traditional state Republican constituents want are not always the same.
An example is immigration. The Tea Party is a leading advocate of tough state laws to curb illegal immigrants in Mississippi.
This past session tough legislation dealing with illegal immigrants was passed out of the House but blocked by Reeves’ Senate after a coalition of business, law enforcement and local government officials expressed reservations about the proposal.
On Wednesday and Thursday at the Neshoba County Fair, immigration was not mentioned by the state officials who spoke. Still, Senate Judiciary B Chair Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, a Tea Party favorite, has hearings on the contentious issue scheduled for Aug. 23.
Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney used the word “fringe” when talking about people opposing his efforts to establish a health insurance exchange – an idea advocated by former Republican Gov. Haley Barbour and a vast majority of Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature in the past. But the Tea Party has been leading the opposition to the exchange, which is included in President Barack Obama’s health care law.
“The issue is who will run the exchanges – the state or the federal government..,” Chaney said. “Now we’ve got a lot of fringe and political agenda groups seeking to stop the development and implementation of exchanges in the various states, suggesting to not follow the law, disobey the law. They use untested legal theories, untested loopholes and fuzzy logic to try to get their point across. Most of these groups have a veiled, self-serving political agenda and they want no options for the state of Mississippi.”
Another issue that is proving difficult for the Republican leadership is charter schools. A group of House Republicans allied with Democrats to kill legislation that would create charter schools, which are public schools exempt from some of the regulations other public schools must follow.
At the fair, Bryant, Reeves and Gunn all expressed support for passing strong charter school legislation. But the issue highlights another split in the party – Republicans who want to make dramatic change to the state’s education system and those who want a more moderate approach.
Reeves took on the issue head-first.
“I have a message for people in both parties who are scared of the future of education reform – buckle your seat belts. Reform is coming to Mississippi,” he said.
Of course, if veteran Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran opts not to seek re-election in 2014, there will be Republicans at the Neshoba County Fair offering less praise and more criticism of their fellow party members. Because, no doubt, many of the people who spoke this year will want Cochran’s job and will be campaigning for it at the 2014 Neshoba County Fair.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com