Gray Tollison, called ‘a senator’s senator,’ chosen to replace Terry Burton as pro tem

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Education Chair Gray Tollison, who has been in near lock step with Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves on his efforts to expand school choice and on other education issues, was elected unanimously Friday as Senate president pro tempore.

While Tollison was selected by the other 51 members of the Mississippi Senate, by tradition the lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, has a huge influence on who is elected to the post.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP, 2017

Senate Education Committee chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, reads from a copy of recommendations made to lawmakers by EdBuild, a New Jersey non-profit education consulting firm, during the firm’s presentation to legislative committees in January 2017.

“Sen. Tollison’s election by his peers to this leadership position shows the deep respect senators have for him,” Reeves said in a statement. “His 24 years of experience in the Legislature and his passion for good public policy make him the right fit to serve as the ‘senators’ senator.’”

The unusual vote for pro tem in the final year of a four-year term was necessitated by the decision of Terry Burton, R-Newton, to resign from the post under pressure from Reeves after being arrested for a third time for driving under the influence in December.

Appropriations Chair Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, said Tollison “has the broad experience” to serve in the constitutionally created post.

“He really is a senator’s senator,” said Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, who seconded the nomination. “He is here to look after the body as well as the members of the Senate.”

The pro tem presides in the absence of the lieutenant governor and oversees the day-to-day management of the chamber as chair of the Rules Committee. Tollison already was vice chair of Rules.

The Senate pro tem also is third in line of gubernatorial succession.

Tollison, who was elected to the Senate in 1995, is not running for re-election this year. The Oxford attorney announced recently he thought it was time to step down from the Senate.

“I appreciate the duties and the seriousness of this position,” he told fellow members in a short acceptance speech after being sworn in by Reeves.

Tollison was viewed as a rising star in Democratic politics when he took office in 1996. The freshman senator immediately was embraced as part of new Democratic Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove’s leadership team and he remained one of the leading voices in the Democratic caucus until he switched parties in 2011.

Tollison gained early attention in the Senate when he was a key vote on the Universities and Colleges Committee in rejecting then Gov. Kirk Fordice’s four nominees to the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning because of their lack of diversity. All four were white men.

In a dramatic special session, Tollison and Sen. Grey Ferris, D-Vicskburg, joined with the African American members of the committee to reject the nominees.

Tollison has said in recent years he was under pressure to approve the nominees because of some of the nominees’ close ties to the University of Mississippi, which is in his district.

Because of his prominence in the Democratic caucus, Tollison’s party switch was viewed as big surprise.

He switched parties on the same week he was re-elected to his District 9 post (Lafayette and Panola counties) in 2011.

“I think he made a mistake,” Horhn said. But “…Sen. Tollison is a fine man. Although we do not agree on everything,” Horhn said he is always civil and respectful.

In recent years as Education chair, Tollison has been a leading advocate for charter schools and for unsuccessful efforts to rewrite the Mississippi Adequate Education Program – the state’s school funding formula that he helped pass in 1997 as a Democrat during Musgrove’s tenure as lieutenant governor.

Tollison, age 54, also will continue his tenure as Education Committee chair while assuming the new duties.