By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – House Speaker Phillip Gunn, R-Clinton, awarded his two main Republican competitors with chairmanships of key money committees and named Democrats to chair about one-fourth of all the House’s committees.
Gunn, who was elected speaker without opposition on Jan. 3, made his much-anticipated committee assignments Friday. He named Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, to chair Appropriations, and Jeff Smith, R-Colmbus, to chair Ways and Means.
Both challenged Gunn in a post-election Republican caucus for the office of speaker, but when the new Republican majority voiced its support for Gunn, Frierson and Smith yielded and did not carry a divisive speaker’s fight into the 2012 session.
Gunn said both had more than 20 years of experience on their respective money committees, but admitted “both were loyal to the Republican Party and needed to be rewarded for that. But the bottom line is both are capable and competent. That is the reason we are picking them.”
With Republicans in a majority for the first time since the 1800s, it was apparent they would have most key leadership posts. But what was not known was whether Gunn would select only members of his own party as chairmen as former Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, did in 2008 when all Republicans voted for Smith instead of McCoy.
Instead, Gunn did as McCoy did in 2004 when he named opposition party members as committee chairmen.
Gunn tabbed 10 Democrats as committee chairmen.
“I gave great consideration to ability,” said Gunn, who said the process of making the committee assignments was difficult. “… The bottom line is I want a team that can help move Mississippi forward.”
Some of McCoy’s key allies, such as Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, who chaired Appropriations; Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, who chaired Education; and Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, who chaired Public Health, received no chairmanship. Holland was named vice chairman of Local and Private, but was not named as a member of Public Health, Medicaid or Appropriations committees where he had established himself as a leader over the past 20 years.
“I don’t have a problem with my assignments in that they are good committees,” Holland said, “but the one walking encyclopedia on health care has been barred from input except on the floor.”
Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville, the former House majority leader, said he also was removed from committees where he had a major impact, such as Public Utilities where he had served as chairman for three terms.
“The former majority leader of the House … (Gunn) didn’t have a choice. You have to punish him,” Ellis said.
But some Democrats, such as Preston Sullivan, D-Okolona, did well under Republican control. Sullivan, who has been Gunn’s deskmate for the past eight years, was appointed chairman of the Agriculture Committee and will serve on the influential Joint Legislative Budget Committee.
“He has me serving in some area I know a little bit about,” said Sullivan, a cattle farmer who has been involved in various aspects of farming. “I appreciate the confidence he has in me. He had a hard job with these appointments. I think he was as fair as he could be.”
Rep. Donnie Bell of Fulton, who changed to the Republican Party less than a week after the November election, will chair Workforce Development, which was previously the Labor Committee. Bell, a former plant manager, said he hopes to take that expertise and use resources like Fulton-based Itawamba Community College to look for ways to improve the state’s work skills.