BILL MINOR: Jockeying, talking begins for 2012 speaker's race

JACKSON – Republicans in the Legislature, for eight years under the thumb of Gov. Haley Barbour, have painted Democratic House Speaker Billy McCoy of Rienzi as the devil incarnate who by himself has thrown up the only roadblock in the path of Barbour’s legislative program.
Remove McCoy, they say, and the GOP will have smooth sailing in controlling the state Legislature. Their problem, however, is come 2012 Barbour will have been term-limited out of the governor’s chair. And there’s no other Republican, including Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, the early favorite to keep the top job in GOP hands, on the scene with nearly the stick that Barbour, the consummate professional politician, wields.
Besides, Billy McCoy, a real dirt farmer, who has battled serious health problems and kept manning his post, may well accommodate the Republicans by voluntarily stepping down from the speakership next time. Some House Democrats even say – but not publicly – that McCoy couldn’t win the job anyway what with so many Republicans out to get him.
You don’t hear the 68-year-old McCoy, a veteran of some of the hardest-fought legislative battles over the last 30 years, even giving a hint that he won’t seek the speaker’s job in the 2012 Legislature. First, of course, he must win reelection to his Northeast Mississippi seat. Last time, Barbour got out major Republican opposition for McCoy, but didn’t come close to knocking off the tough old campaigner.
McCoy, while undergoing colon re-section surgery, suffered a couple of strokes and remained on the critically endangered list for several weeks. Some intimates say only McCoy’s rugged constitution pulled him through and others said it was his combative instincts to keep Barbour from dominating the legislative branch. Sooner than expected, he was back on his feet, wielding the gavel through long sessions that would tire a younger man.
“He (McCoy) has said nothing about stepping down, but if I were betting, I would put my money on him doing it,” says 28-year veteran Democrat, Rep. Steve Holland of Plantersville, (just outside Tupelo). “Certainly Billy has earned a rest–he’s shouldered the burden for us long enough.”
Holland, an outspoken critic of Republican Gov. Barbour, has no personal designs on seeking the speakership but is non-committal on whom he may back for the job if McCoy steps down. One thing he’s sure about is keeping any Republican from winning the job.
All Democratic speaker hopefuls, however, are not just sitting on the sidelines twiddling their thumbs. Rep. Bobby Moak of Bogue Chitto, who has spent 28 years in the ranks, is the most active non-announced candidate. “Others are saying I am running and that’s all right with me,” says Moak, “but I don’t want to put a target on my back right now for people to shoot at.”
Quietly, Moak is fundraiser-in-chief for fellow Democratic lawmakers, although some turn down his help because of questionable sources. But the ever-smiling Moak has a secret, well-heeled source in best-selling novelist John Grisham, his longtime friend from days when Grisham was a Democratic member of this same Mississippi House.
“We talk every week,” Moak says of Grisham. “And yes, I expect John to send down some help.” Other than the millionaire novelist, Moak isn’t talking about any other funding sources. Some fellow House Democrats contend they are bothered by Moak’s wheeling-dealing contacts in the casino industry.
You can be sure the Republicans are going to make a full-court press to improve their one-third numbers in the 122-member House in the next election or possibly gain a majority. The former could happen, the latter unlikely. Nevertheless, the GOPers are grooming their own speaker candidate: Rep. Philip Gunn of Clinton, a relatively moderate former Clinton school board president.

Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at edinman@earthlink.net.

Bill Minor