BOBBY HARRISON: Resilient Robert Johnson doesn't give up

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – In January 2008 on the opening of the legislative session, Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, entering his second term in the Mississippi House, went head-to-head with Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, a legislative icon, and lost.
Blackmon was the choice of Rep. Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, to serve as the temporary speaker. Johnson was the choice for the post of Rep. Jeff Smith of Columbus, who was favored by the then-House Republican minority to be the new speaker in 2008.
Smith hoped to siphon off enough Democratic votes to win the speakership. And the vote for of the temporary speaker was in reality a proxy vote for the real speaker.
For two spine-tingling roll calls, the vote for temporary speaker was deadlocked at 61-all. On the third roll call, Rep. Linda Coleman, D-Cleveland, switched, giving Blackmon the temporary speakership and ultimately McCoy the permanent speakership.
It appeared Johnson was a dead man walking in terms of political influence in the Mississippi House. He had bucked his majority party, his Black Caucus and one of the most respected members of the Black Caucus.
But before long, Johnson was serving as a key member of McCoy’s leadership team as one of his lead negotiators on the complex Medicaid issues.
Johnson is used to political revivals. In 2003, he was defeated in his re-election effort to the state Senate by Kelvin Butler, D-Magnolia.
But before long, he re-incarnated himself as a member of the House.
This term, perhaps no Democrat in the state House – other than Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg – has a more important committee assignment than Johnson, who is chair of the Transportation Committee under the now-Republican majority.
But Johnson has been true to his Democratic roots while serving as a key committee chair of conservative Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton.
On Monday, the Natchez attorney spoke at the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute of Government/Capitol press corps luncheon where he advocated for an increase in the motor fuel tax to enhance infrastructure in the state and for an expansion of the state Medicaid program that is allowed under the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
When Johnson speaks he usually goes 90 to nothing covering a lot of material and facts in a single swoop. He is constantly on a laptop computer reading and studying on the issues that are of interest to him.
He said the gas tax increase makes sense because the state has many infrastructure needs that are not being met under the current taxing rate. Plus, he said spending on infrastructure “is an investment. It will create jobs.”
As far as the Medicaid expansion, Johnson said it will not only improve the quality of life for many working Mississippians, but according to a study by the Institutions of Higher Learning, will create 9,000 jobs. He said that would be a better return on money spent by the state than when the Legislature passed hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds to entice Nissan and Toyota to the state.
Johnson said the key on the gas tax is for the business community to get behind the issue – just as it did in 1987 when the Legislature passed the current 18.8-cent per gallon tax. Supporters of a gasoline tax increase say that tax has remained essentially flat through the years while road construction costs have soared.
While Johnson did not say it during Monday’s Stennis luncheon speech, he and others believe that the business community – particularly the health care business community – will be a key if Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Gunn, the state’s top three leaders and all Republican, soften their opposition to the Medicaid expansion.
At this time, it is still a longshot that a Medicaid expansion created as part of President Barack Obama’s signature health care legislation and a gasoline tax increase will pass the first Republican legislative majority in Mississippi since the 1800s.
But Johnson believes that at some point in the coming sessions that is a possibility. And if it occurs, Robert Johnson, who keeps rising from the political dead, will be in a unique position to help steer either one or both to passage.
After all, Johnson is used to losing, but not of giving up.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’sCapitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call(601) 353-3119.