BILL MINOR: Republican legislative takeover forced Democrats to organize

By Bill Minor

JACKSON – Haley Barbour succeeded in installing a Republican majority in the Legislature, and, no doubt inadvertently, he also did legislative Democrats a favor.
He literally forced House Democrats in self-defense to organize for the first time a party caucus, and naming half dozen members to floor leadership positions.
A minority in the Legislature for the first time since 1875 (yes, 1875) House Democrats have elected a minority leader, plus a deputy leader and four floor leaders.
Just as the GOP had zeroed on Nancy Pelosi as the party’s chief enemy in the 2010 midterm elections, here Barbour picked Democratic House Speaker Billy McCoy as his target. He tried but failed in 2008 to defeat McCoy’s re-election as speaker. Even as he went out of office Barbour was determined to get McCoy. But the battle-scarred hill country lawmaker, beset with health issues, surprised everyone by voluntarily stepping down. Though Republicans have only a five-vote majority, House Democrats decided not to contest Republican Philip Gunn of Clinton for speaker.
Several Democrats who publicly praised Gunn wound up with decent committee assignments, but by and large, the most capable Democratic veterans were thrown into the dustbin. As I pointed out previously, Gunn scrapped 90 years of experience of leading Democrats in the priority fields of money, education and public health.
But back to the newly organized House Democratic caucus. The Dems wisely chose caucus leadership from all sections of the state to fill leadership posts. As minority leader, they elected Rep. Bobby Moak, a 28-year veteran from rural Bogue Chitto. Though not noted as a legislative heavyweight, Moak is well-liked for his friendly manner and fundraising talent, helping fellow Democrats fund their campaigns.
As deputy leader, they made a good choice in Rep. Bryant Clark of Pickens, who eight years ago succeeded his father, Robert Clark, the iconic figure who in 1968 became the first African-American to sit in Mississippi Legislature since the end of Reconstruction. Before retiring in 2004, Clark rose to speaker pro tempore. The younger Clark, an attorney, has been quietly influential as a lawmaker and gained the trust of both Democrats and Republicans.
Democratic floor leaders include Rep. David Baria of Bay St. Louis, who served in the Senate the past four years. A noted statewide attorney, Baria, who formerly practiced in Jackson, had been president of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association.
Other floor leaders include Rep. Kelvin Buck, a black businessman from Holly Springs, Rep. Adrienne Wooten, a black female attorney from Jackson and gregarious Rep. Steve Holland of Plantersville, a Tupelo suburb. Now in his 29th year in the House, Holland had become noted as the most vocal critic of Haley Barbour’s governorship, especially in questions involving the state’s Medicaid program that provides health coverage for some 650,000 needy adults and children.
Closely watching the state trending Republican the last 20 years, Democrats are particularly concerned that rural white Democrats are the most endangered. That’s why the Barbour forces targeted 12 of them in 2011, knocking off 10 of them. One they didn’t get is crusty Bennett Malone of Carthage, who survived and is back for the ninth time. Of course, he’s stripped of his Corrections Committee chairmanship he held for two decades.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.