GOP pioneer Phillips dead at 86

By Jack Elliot Jr./The Associated Press

JACKSON — Rubel L. Phillips, a pioneer in the Mississippi Republican Party whose two campaigns for governor in the 1960s set the stage for winning statewide campaigns that would come later, has died at a Ridgeland retirement community. He was 86.

Phillips died Saturday at the Blake at Township, officials with Sebrell Funeral Home in Ridgeland said Tuesday. Phillips’ cause of death was not made public.

Services are noon Wednesday at Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson. A graveside service will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Shiloh Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Alcorn County.

Survivors include his wife, Margaret; two sons; two brothers; and two grandchildren.

Phillips, an Alcorn County native, was elected the county’s circuit clerk shortly after graduating from the University of Mississippi School of Law. He later was elected to the Mississippi Public Service Commission.

Phillips entered private law practice in 1958 in Jackson. From 1979 until 1990, he was associated with Mobile Communications Corporation of America (MCCA), later Mobilecomm and a subsidiary of BellSouth, as a consultant and in-house counsel.

In 1956, after years as a Democrat, Phillips joined with Wirt Yerger Jr. and others to rejuvenate the Mississippi Republican Party. Yerger was the party’s chairman. Phillips became the party’s candidate for governor in 1963 and 1967.

In 1963, Phillips became the first Republican nominee for governor in 80 years, challenging then-Lt. Gov. Paul Johnson Jr. and getting 38 percent of the vote. He ran on the slogan “KO. the Kennedys.”

Phillips ran again in 1967 against John Bell Williams but lost, this time getting 29 percent of the vote.

“He was one of the great pioneers of the Republican Party,” said Jim Herring, a Canton attorney and former state GOP chairman.

Herring said Phillips’ two campaigns began the process of developing a new GOP that building process ultimately led to more Republican candidates and the election of the first GOP governor, Kirk Fordice, in 1991.

“The GOP organization was just getting going and one of things that gave it big push was those two campaigns,” Herring.

Herring, who would briefly work for Phillips’ law firm in the 1970s, described Phillips as a “soft spoken person” who continued to be financial supportive of the GOP and its candidates.

In 2010, Phillips and other GOP gubernatorial candidates were honored at the Mississippi Republican Party’s Second Annual Pioneer Dinner. Phillips could not attend because health issues.

Bill Minor, former Mississippi Capitol correspondent with The Times Picayune and a columnist, described Phillips as a “break-through” candidate but one who had to combat battering from the Democrats that “he was being soft on civil rights.”

“He was projected as the liberal, mind you, in a contest with Democrats because he had taken some views that were construed as liberal, which were not in fashion back in those days.

“His career is hard to define. He came out a strong Democratic background … a member of a big political family in Alcorn County. I really believe he converted to Republicanism as a political opportunity to raise money to run. I never saw him as adopting the philosophy,” Minor said.