By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – Philip Gunn is far from the most experienced or even the most vocal member of the Republican caucus of the Mississippi House.
But nearly from the time he was seated in the House eight years ago, the Clinton Republican has taken on a leadership role. He has served as the chairman of the House Republican Conference.
In his first term, a high school page turned to a reporter as Gunn spoke in the well of the House and said he and some of the other pages had met with Gunn, and they felt sure he would run for statewide office one day.
That day may come. But in the meantime, the 48-year-old father of four is poised to assume the post that rivals or surpasses most statewide offices in terms of sheer political power.
Republicans who gained a majority in the House in the November general election for the first time since the late 1800s selected Gunn as their preference for House speaker during a closed-door meeting about a week after the election. Unless something surprising happens, Gunn will be elected speaker Tuesday when the Legislature convenes.
Many Democrats have indicated that they might not even nominate a challenger, since the Republicans, who hold a 64-58 majority, appear solidly behind Gunn.
“Philip is a good man,” said Rep. Preston Sullivan, D-Okolona, who has been Gunn’s deskmate for the past eight years. “Some of our politics are different – not all. He wants to see the state move forward, and he wants to help people … He is a smart guy. He is gifted that way.”
Various sources have revealed that Gunn defeated Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, by one vote on the final tally during the November caucus. Five Republicans originally vied for the post.
It is not the first close call Gunn has had in his rapid ascension in state politics.
In 2003, it appeared he had lost in the Republican primary to one-term incumbent Jep Barbour – the nephew of Haley Barbour, who would win the Governor’s Mansion later that year. But a court-ordered re-vote because of discrepancies in some Hinds County precincts swung the election to Gunn.
Gunn might have defeated a Barbour relative, but he has remained a loyal ally to the governor during his two terms in the House. As a first-year freshman, he played a vocal role in helping push through civil justice changes championed by Barbour. Much of Gunn’s legal practice is centered on defending insurance companies in civil lawsuits.
Gunn is former president of the Clinton School Board, but has generally sided with Barbour, who has said education spending needed to be held down because of budget constraints. For the 2011 session, Gunn received a zero voting grade from the Parents Campaign, a grassroots group advocating full funding of education, and voted with the group 59 percent of the time since it has been recording education funding votes, according to the group’s website.
He is both fiscally and socially conservative. He has authored or co-authored legislation to reduce the size of the House, to enact “Covenant Marriage,” to ban education courses from being taught in a “partisan” manner and to prohibit the creation of “human-animal hybrids.”
Gunn, whose parents and sister were killed by a drunk driver while he was attending the University of Mississippi School of Law, also has been active in supporting legislation designed to curtail instances of driving under the influence.
“I have never known Philip to do anything other than what he said he would do,” said Rep. Mac Huddleston, R-Pontotoc. “… You can trust him.”
Rep. Lester “Bubba” Carpenter, R-Burnsville, said Gunn does not act hastily but studies all sides of an issue before he acts.
Legislators also said Gunn has a sense of humor.
“He likes to cut up,” said Carpenter, who said Gunn came up this summer with other legislators to fish in Tishomingo County.
Sullivan said he and Gunn have a unique relationship.
“I will tell him he is going a little too far, and he will tell me what he thinks,” Sullivan said, adding that then Gunn will laugh about the disagreement. “He is the kind of fellow you don’t mind getting in a conversation with.”
Often Gunn has led the Republican charge when the House Democratic leadership has blocked in committee Republican-supported legislation. At times, that has led to confrontation with outgoing Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi. But at a recent dinner honoring McCoy, Gunn praised the retiring speaker, saying despite their differences, “He has given me advice. Tried to help me. That is a kind man. He loves the House and wants to see it flourish.”
For his part, McCoy said it is obvious Gunn would be the next speaker and wished him well and praised his legislative abilities.
McCoy said, “I am a House member. I wish you the very best.”
Later, McCoy said, “I don’t know Mr. Gunn that well personally. I know him to be an honest man and a capable man. If he is elected speaker, I believe he will do his very best to move this state forward.”
One issue where Gunn butted heads with McCoy and the House leadership was over the Child Protection Act, which passed the Republican-controlled Senate, but was blocked in committee by House Democrats. Among other things, the legislation put new reporting guidelines in place requiring people who suspect child abuse to report it to law enforcement.
House Judiciary B Chairman Willie Bailey, D-Greenville, said he blocked the legislation because existing law was adequate and because he feared it could have unintended consequences because of the vagueness of some of the language.
While Gunn has advocated for Child Protection, various media reports have recounted his role as deacon at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton in dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse involving the church’s music director, who has been indicted over incidents that allegedly occurred years before the choir leader was employed by the church. No instances of child abuse at the church have been reported.
But both Jackson television and the Associated Baptist Press have reported the Hinds County District Attorney’s office has indicated it might issue subpoenas against Morrison Heights leaders, including Gunn, because on Gunn’s advice, the church leaders have refused to divulge what they were told in confidence by the choir director.
Republican House members have said they are not concerned about the issue. Most say they do not know anything about it, but trust that Gunn will make the right decisions.
Since being named the preference of the House Republicans for speaker, Gunn has granted few media interviews. He declined an interview for this story, though through the years he has been accessible and friendly with the media.