BOBBY HARRISON: Speaker entertains in Capitol, but no politics

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

In the 1940s movie classic “Casablanca,” Capt. Luis Renault, played by Claude Rains, announces he is closing a well-known gambling den.
When asked why by the proprietor, Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, Renault says, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here” as he is handed his winnings from one of Rick’s employees.
Well, perhaps some could utter similar words with the same convictions about the state Capitol.
“I am shocked, shocked to find that politics is going on in here.”
Normally, on election night I work out of the state Capitol pressroom putting together my story for the next day on election results. While at one time there were several reporters who worked out of the Capitol on election night, in recent elections I have been the only one – a relic from a different day, perhaps.
In both 2007 and 2011, as I waited for election results to come in, I walked down to the office of then-Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, since it appeared that was the only other room in the vast Capitol building where there was human activity occurring.
And there was.
The speaker’s office is where forces loyal to McCoy had gathered to monitor election results to determine whether they could hold on to power. I remember distinctly, an attorney friendly to the speaker committing to fly to the Coast the following day to help with any legal proceedings resulting from a close, but important, election down there.
Maybe I was allowed into the speaker’s office that night because I work for essentially the then-speaker’s hometown newspaper. But I did not get the impression what they were doing was secretive. Former Speaker Tim Ford did the same thing. And I was sure it was done by speakers prior to him.
It should be pointed out that I walked into the speaker’s outer office, not into the inner sanctum where, no doubt, key decisions were being made.
As everyone knows, it is a new day at the state Capitol with Republicans controlling the offices of governor, lieutenant governor and speaker for the first time since the 1800s.
It is much more difficult to get into the speaker’s office to the degree I was on those aforementioned election nights, and no, not just because the speaker no longer hails from the region of my employer in Northeast Mississippi. Thousands of dollars have been spent to renovate the speaker’s office so that there is a very small lobby at the front of the suite and to get past that someone has to unlock a door.
Some were aghast Monday night when word leaked out that Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, was entertaining some Republican Party heavyweights – by that I mean major fundraisers – in the speaker’s office.
Gunn said he and his wife entertained and dined with the three Republican Party heavyweights and their spouses because they were friends and they said they had never been in the speaker’s office.
Gunn stressed that he paid for everything.
The appearance to some is that Gunn was raising campaign funds in his public office.
The first-term speaker said that was not the case at all, but if he had been, no doubt, it would not be the first time that such an occurrence had taken place in the Mississippi Capitol.
Various groups – of all political stripes – meet at the Capitol on a regular basis. The governor – all governors – entertain in the Mansion. And no doubt, some of those events are political in nature.
Gunn said his event Monday night was not political, but social. Perhaps they did spend all their time talking about baseball, hunting and current events. Goodness knows there have been many strange and tragic current events to talk about in recent days,
But to think the first Republican speaker since Reconstruction met with Billy Mounger, Billy Powell and Wirt Yerger, three legendary king makers in state Republican Party circles, and the event was not political in nature would stretch the credibility of even Capt. Renault.
They didn’t just show up for the waters, as in Casablanca.
No doubt, in politics just as a kiss isn’t just a kiss, a dinner is not just a dinner.
But that goes for everybody.
BOBBY HARRISON is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call (601) 353-3119.