SID SALTER: Race for House speaker begins in earnest today

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – With Tuesday’s primary elections removing a layer of doubt over just who will comprise the 122 members of the Mississippi House of Representatives when they convene in 2012, the “other” race that’s underway for a major leadership post advanced this week.
Under the 1890 Mississippi Constitution, the true power in state government resides in the Legislature with the governor enjoying far less authority. For more than a century, that was the way of things at the state Capitol. Gov. Haley Barbour turned that reality on its political head during his two terms in office by virtue of the installation of Washington-style party discipline and by the sheer force of his own power within the state’s GOP and the fear of his intervention in the races of individual members. Barbour particularly held sway in the state Senate.
Barbour’s ability to turn that weak governor paradigm around not only required his unique skills and strategies, but the loyalty and support of Amy Tuck and Phil Bryant. Bryant in particular was a solid soldier in support of Barbour’s agenda over the last four years.
Now Bryant is the leading contender to succeed Barbour. There will be a new Republican lieutenant governor leading the Senate. That’s why the stakes are so incredibly high for the outcome of the race over which Mississippi voters have only indirect control – the House speaker. Sure, the voters elect the representatives, but the representatives elect the speaker.
The goal of the GOP is to control all three posts – governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker. With the GOP in control of seven-of-eight statewide elected offices and five-of-six posts in the state’s congressional delegation, Democrats feel that their last ditch effort to maintain statewide influence is to control the House.
Democratic House Speaker Billy McCoy of Rienzi is stepping down from the seat he’s held since 1980 and from the House leadership post he’s held since 2004. Democrats held a 69-53 margin, but McCoy’s margin in the House in 2008 was a mere one vote, as he rallied 62 Democrats to beat fellow Democrat Rep. Jeff Smith of Columbus – who got 47 Republican votes and 13 Democrats.
Republicans see their chances of either making enough pickups in the House to elect one of their own as speaker or at least gaining enough to forge a coalition with a speaker friendly to Republicans as good in the 2011 election cycle. Smith has switched to the GOP and makes no secret that he’s still seeking the speaker’s post.
But so are fellow Republicans House members Philip Gunn, Herb Frierson, and Dr. Sid Bondurant to name a few. Several House members at the Neshoba County Fair last week speculated that there are likely other Republicans who may come “out of the woodwork” at a later date to press for the leadership post if no one grabs an early lead.
On the Democratic side, there’s no secret that House Gaming Committee Chairman Bobby Moak of Bogue Chitto is angling for the Speaker’s office, as it House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Brown. It would be difficult to conceive that an African-American candidate for the post won’t emerge. The more likely contenders from the Black Caucus would be House Democratic Majority Leader Tyrone Ellis, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Percy Watson or Rep. Robert Johnson.
The House speaker’s race will almost certainly be an exercise in coalition building. The surprises will come in just who builds a coalition with whom.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 662-325-2506 or ssalter@library.msstate.edu.