New House Democratic leader became key ally of last Democratic speaker after voting against him

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, asks a question during a special session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Jackson Monday, August 27, 2018.

The same Mississippi representative who recently was elected without opposition as the Democratic leader of the state House almost sabotaged the election of the last Democratic speaker 12 years ago.

Billy McCoy, a Prentiss County Democrat, was elected speaker on a tension-filled opening day of the 2008 session by a 62-60 vote. Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, was not one of the members voting for McCoy. Johnson joined 12 other Democrats in voting for Jeff Smith of Columbus, an independent at the time, who had the support of the entire Republican caucus.

The same Johnson recently was selected by the House Democrats, now in a distinct minority, to head their caucus for the next four years. And it is safe to say McCoy, who died in November at the age of 77, would have been OK – perhaps even happy – with the decision of the House Democrats to select Johnson as their leader.

Bobby Harrison

Despite a sometimes quick temper, by 2008 McCoy had long since learned the pitfalls of holding a grudge in politics. And besides, on most issues, as Johnson said recently, he and McCoy were essentially on the same page.

Johnson said soon after the dramatic election for speaker he went to McCoy and explained why he supported Smith. Johnson told McCoy he was ready to support him and work with him during the next four years in whatever manner McCoy deemed fit.

McCoy named Johnson vice chair of the Medicaid Committee and made him a key negotiator as the Democratic-controlled House battled with Republican Gov. Haley Barbour on multiple health care issues. Johnson, an attorney and experienced litigator, was viewed by McCoy as more capable than most House members of taking on Barbour and his skilled staff.

Johnson became part of McCoy’s inner circle despite not supporting his election to a second term as speaker.

“Absolutely, he became a key ally,” said Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs, who served in the House as the Banking Committee chair under McCoy. “He was smart.”

When McCoy would  meet with the media, he often would have members of his leadership team in the meeting.

“His cabinet was six or seven members,” Johnson recalled. “I was No. 8. He would have me in all the meetings. If I was not there, he would call and ask me to attend.”

Johnson added, “I was able to learn a lot.” He said what he learned most from McCoy was to be decisive and to be consistent.

As House Democratic leader, Johnson said he will strive to work with the Republican majority where possible, but Democrats will fight on issues they believe are crucial to the progress of the state, such as improving health care through Medicaid expansion, increasing funding for infrastructure needs and providing additional funds for pay raises for teachers and state employees.

In a September 2019 interview Johnson, age 61, spoke of carrying signs with his parents as a young boy to protest discrimination in the then-segregated South. He said he developed “a sense of duty” and while he left the state for undergraduate and law school, he said he always wanted to return to Mississippi.

“I love Natchez and I love Mississippi, and I just want to see us grow and be better,” he said.

In 2008, Johnson’s decision to support Smith was a big deal. Both camps were placing tremendous pressure on members. Members of the House Black Caucus were claiming all of their members were supporting McCoy. But at news conferences touting that support, it became clear that a few African American members might not be voting for McCoy, such as Johnson and Linda Coleman of Mound Bayou. Coleman ultimately switched her vote to break a tie and to put McCoy over the top.

Johnson said his support for Smith was centered on the fact that he was concerned with issues surrounding health care and transportation, particularly in the Delta and in southwest Mississippi, and that Smith had indicated a willingness to include more African American House members on key committees to address those issues.

Johnson said McCoy actually agreed with him on those issues, but would not commit to making committee assignments to earn his vote.

As it turned out, McCoy ended up naming a record number of African Americans, who were his largest base of support among the House coalitions, as committee chairs, including Percy Watson as chair of Ways and Means, a key money committee, and Ed Blackmon as chair of Judiciary A.

Johnson got a vice chairmanship, but more importantly, his influence among House Democrats began to grow during that period and has continued to grow since then.

And people can only speculate on how the history of the state might have been different if Johnson’s side had prevailed in that 2008 speaker’s fight.