JACKSON – It generally is accepted in the halls of the Mississippi Capitol that Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant is not Gov. Haley Barbour’s favorite Republican.
It is no coincidence that Barbour’s brother worked on the campaign of Charlie Ross, Bryant’s opponent in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor in 2007.
Yet Bryant is viewed widely as the front-runner to replace Barbour in 2012. Through two sometimes chaotic legislative sessions during the current four-year term, there have been few outward signs to reinforce the conventional wisdom that Barbour and Bryant are not that close.
With a state budget finally passed and the work of the 2009 legislative session finally complete – albeit about three months later than scheduled – it will be interesting to watch the relationship between Bryant and Barbour during the final two legislative sessions.
The joke for most of Barbour’s two terms is that it is he, and not the lieutenant governor, who actually controls the Senate. That was the joke when Amy Tuck presided as lieutenant governor over the Senate during Barbour’s first term and it is the same now during Bryant’s tenure.
For two years, the Senate under Tuck’s leadership basically yielded to Barbour’s wishes. Almost all of his propositions passed the Senate, and he could count on the Senate to kill the House proposals that he opposed.
It has been much the same under a Bryant Senate. There have been a few noticeable splits between Barbour and Bryant. The most obvious may have been Barbour’s veto of legislation that would have prevented the state from taking private property for use by another private entity.
Bryant supported the legislation, but was unable to garner the two-thirds vote in the Senate, where he presides, to override the governor.
Tuck, of course, broke with Barbour in a very public and dramatic way in the third year of the four-year term when she came out for the cigarette tax increase that Barbour opposed. She also proposed taking the revenue generated from an increase in the cigarette tax to reduce the tax on food.
Tuck’s tax shift, had it passed, would have been some of the most ground-breaking legislation of recent memory. But Barbour, who opposed at the time both increasing the cigarette tax and reducing the grocery tax, prevailed because of Tuck’s inability to muster the two-thirds majority needed in the Senate to override a veto.
From that point on, Tuck’s relationship with Barbour, like Bryant’s current relationship, was OK on the surface, but insiders knew it was strained.
Thus far, Bryant has not done anything nearly as dramatic as Tuck’s tax shift proposal to strain his relationship with the governor. It could be argued that Bryant came to the post of lieutenant governor with less than the best relationship with the governor.
After all, Bryant and Barbour come from different strains of Republicanism.
Barbour, considered one of the top political strategists in the nation, is rooted in the faction of the Republican Party that puts the interests of business first and foremost. If business thrives, we all thrive is a very simple and general explanation of his beliefs. He supports the social issues important to conservative Christians in the Republican Party, though that is not his primary concern and, as chair of the Republican National Committee in the 1990s, he tried to stress the importance of being a big-ticket party that welcomed a diverse group of people – including abortion rights and gay rights advocates.
At the heart of who Bryant is as a politician is the conservative Christian social policy agenda. He also believes in the importance of business interests to the Republican Party, but occasionally will veer off on quasi-populist streaks, such as on the issues of eminent domain and of putting more burdens on businesses to identify illegal immigrants.
Ironically, on many of those issues, Bryant and Tuck are much more similar to each other than either is to Barbour.
But no doubt Barbour will support the Republican nominee in 2011 to follow him as governor. The question is, will Barbour work behind the scenes in a Republican primary against Bryant or Tuck?
Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau reporter in Jackson for the Daily Journal. Contact him at (601) 353-3119 or email@example.com.
Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal