Speaker McCoy not seeking re-election to House

JACKSO — Mississippi Democratic House Speaker Billy McCoy said Wednesday he won’t seek re-election to Legislature this year, a decision that reshapes the state’s political landscape by opening the race for the presiding officer of the 122-member chamber.

McCoy, 68, announced his decision in a news release, saying no single issue led him to step aside when this term ends in January. Bobby Harrison of the NEMS Daily Journal reported the decision this morning on NEMS360.com. He has had health challenges since the summer of 2004, when he had a series of strokes and diverticulitis, an inflammation of the digestive tract. However, McCoy said Wednesday that his health is stable and his energy level is high.

“There’s a season for everything,” McCoy said in his statement. “I am confident that there’s a season for me after legislative service. By God’s grace, I’m planning on spending more time in the beautiful foothills of the Appalachians with my family and friends.”

His announcement comes one week before the June 1 qualifying deadline for legislative candidates.

McCoy represents House District 3 in northeast Mississippi’s Alcorn and Prentiss counties. He was first elected in November 1979 and took office in January 1980.

McCoy holds the same House seat once held by his father, Elmer J. McCoy, and he often speaks fondly of going to the Capitol as a child when his father was serving. McCoy is a populist Democrat and has pushed to increase funding over the years for education, health care and transportation.

His House colleagues elected McCoy speaker unanimously in January 2004, when the job was open. He won a second term as speaker by a 62-60 vote over Rep. Jeff Smith of Columbus, a conservative Democrat, in January 2008.

McCoy’s decision leaves both top legislative jobs open in the coming year, because Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate, is running for governor. The current governor, Republican Haley Barbour is limited to two terms and can’t run again.

All legislative seats are up for election this year. Party primaries are Aug. 2, and the general election is Nov. 8. House members will elect a speaker when the new term begins in January.

Democrats now hold a 69-53 advantage over Republicans in the House, but it’s unclear whether the partisan balance will hold because several lawmakers are not seeking re-election and at least two dozen seats are considered competitive this year.

The 2012 speaker’s race is already taking shape.

Smith is running for the House this year as an independent rather than a Democrat. He said Wednesday that he’s running for speaker.

Several lawmakers said Democrat Bobby Moak of Bogue Chitto, a longtime McCoy ally, is running for speaker now that McCoy is out of the picture. Moak on Wednesday said he didn’t want to discuss his own plans. “This is Billy’s day,” Moak said.

Republican Sidney Bondurant of Grenada acknowledged in a separate interview that he’s running for speaker.

Republican Philip Gunn of Clinton said others have approached him to run for the leadership job. Gunn said he’s focused now on helping elect conservative Republicans to the House, and he’ll consider the speaker’s race later.

Republican Herb Frierson of Poplarville said some lawmakers have approached him about running for speaker, and he’s not ruling it out.

McCoy’s allies were subdued in response to his decision to step aside. The speaker appoints committee chairmen, and those in power now could lose their positions when the House has a new leader.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said he knows McCoy made a difficult decision.

“It’s hard for us too,” Stringer said. “He’s the most honest person I’ve ever known.”

McCoy was instrumental in passing a 1987 program to expand and improve four-lane highways. He also served at different times as chairman of the House Education Committee and the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.

McCoy sometimes showed flashes of temper but has been loyal to his allies, lawmakers said. The 2008 speaker’s race sharply divided the House: All 62 votes for McCoy came from Democrats, while 13 Democrats and 47 Republicans voted for Smith. When McCoy appointed committee leaders days later, he didn’t give a single chairmanship to a Republican.

Frierson said that like many Republicans, he was disappointed but not surprised that the GOP was cut out of committee chairmanships this past term.

“We knew it was for all the marbles and we felt like what was going to happen, did happen,” Frierson said.

Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press