Mississippi Legislature 2020: Election challenge, prison unrest greet lawmakers at start of session

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Rep. Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, recites his oath of office after being reelected as Speaker of the House of Representatives Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020, in Jackson, Miss.

The new four-year term of the Mississippi Legislature began Tuesday amid the specter of the House having to decide an election challenge of one of its newest members and both chambers facing tough decisions in the coming weeks on how to deal with violence at prisons throughout the state.

As expected, House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, newly elected to his third term as speaker, named a five-member committee to deal with the election challenge in House District 40 in DeSoto County. Democrat Hester Jackson McCray defeated incumbent Republican Ashley Henley by 14 votes in the Southaven-based district, but Henley challenged the results claiming voter irregularities. The state Constitution gives the two chambers the authority to resolve any election disputes.

Henley said in an interview on Tuesday that she had not heard from the speaker’s office about the specifics of the challenge but that she would remain in Jackson for “as long as it takes” for the matter to be resolved.

“My outlook is that truth matters more than anything else,” Henley told Mississippi Today. “We’ll see.”

The special election challenge committee will be chaired by Rep. Rob Roberson, R-Starkville. It also will include Rep. Nick Bain, R-Corinth; Rep. Willie Bailey, D-Greenville; Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven; and Rep. Hank Zuber, R-Ocean Springs.

“We are going to be even-handed and fair, and we will be as transparent as we can be,” said Roberson, who expressed hope the process could be finished and the committee make a recommendation for the full House to vote on within three to four weeks.

Although four of the five members of the committee are Republicans, Jackson McCray said “I think it is going to be a fair process. I am giving them the benefit of the doubt.”

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Lea Campbell of the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign speaks during a rally concerning MDOC inmates’ rights outside of the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020.

While the Legislature convened inside the Capitol, a group of concerned parents, spouses and advocates of people detained in Mississippi’s correctional facilities gathered on High Street outside the building to protest recent violence inside the state’s jails and prisons.

Last week at least five inmates were killed in three Mississippi correctional facilities, and the Department of Corrections issued a statewide lockdown. Three of the men were killed in Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, where graphic videos of violence and inhumane conditions have made the rounds on social media. Loved ones want answers, which is why more than 50 people came to the state Capitol Tuesday to protest.

Many held signs with handwritten phrases — “MDOC, where is my husband? I deserve answers” — and shared their experiences.

Gunn said he has been in contact with outgoing Gov. Phil Bryant about the issues at the prisons.

“As I understand it, it is an urgent situation,” Gunn said. “But from what I understand the situation is under control at this moment. There are a lot of issues to address moving forward.”

Protesters refuted that statement.

“We are here today to shout loudly that we are fed up and will no longer tolerate the inhumane and unconstitutional system that our state has allowed,” said Lea Campbell, with the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign. “The state wants you to think that right now, after the lockdown from last week, that everything is under control but we are here to speak truth to power and the truth is MDOC’s prisons have never been under any type of control.”

The group laid out a list of demands, including “humane and constitutional prison conditions” like safe drinking water and living conditions, and fully transparent communication from MDOC and the state with taxpayers, advocates and families.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Delbert Hosemann during the opening day of the legislative session in the Mississippi House chambers at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, January, 2020.

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who will be sworn in on Thursday as lieutenant governor, said Tuesday he visited Parchman during the weekend to garner a first-hand view of the issues that the Legislature might need to address during the upcoming session.

Hosemann won’t be sworn in as lieutenant governor for two more days, but in his capacity as current secretary of state, presided over the House as is required by state law.
Before Gunn was officially elected by the House members as speaker, Hosemann took the opportunity in the lower chamber to address the members, touching on past tensions between the House and Senate the past eight years while Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves controlled the Senate and promising for a better working relationship in the term to come.

“I respect each of you,” Hosemann said. “In this building, there’s a rotunda. It has, on occasion, been more of a chasm. However, the architects of this building designed two walkways around that rotunda to bridge that gap. For the next four year, I plan to use those walkways, and there will be no chasm. I will look forward to working with each of you and meeting you on that walkway… I am so looking forward to a bright, constructive future.”