A fairgoer holds a Mississippi State flag during the Neshoba County Fair on Wednesday, July 31, 2019.

Speaker of the House Philip Gunn said on Wednesday that some legislators are “looking at what can be done” to change the Mississippi state flag, the last in the nation containing the Confederate battle emblem.

Gunn, who has long been one of the few Republican state leaders who has said the flag should change, said that changing the flag this late in the legislative session will be difficult.

“It would require a lot of work,” Gunn said. “I tell people you need to remember it’s a two-thirds vote.”

After Mississippi Today reported on Tuesday that a bipartisan group of House members began whipping votes and drafting legislation to remove the current state flag, lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol dome scrambled to learn more about the discussions occurring behind closed doors.

Because key legislative deadlines have passed this session, any flag change would require a two-thirds vote of both the House (80 of 120 members) and the Senate (34 of 52 members) to suspend the rules to allow a bill to change the flag to be considered. That threshold would likely require a little fewer than 40 Republicans to be on board with changing the flag — a difficult number to reach, Gunn and other lawmakers acknowledged.

Rep. Robert Johnson of Natchez, the House Democratic leader, said most of his 45 members would vote to change the flag. He said the bipartisan group’s goal is to convince about 40 of the Republican House members to join the effort to achieve the two-thirds majority needed to change the flag.

The House consists of 73 Republicans, 45 Democrats, two independents. There are two current vacancies from Republican-leaning districts.

“There are about 20 Republicans we believe would quietly vote right now to change the flag,” Johnson said. “We believe there are 20 more who are on the fence.”

Whether they can get most of those 20 off the fence most likely will determine whether Gunn lets the issue onto the floor for a vote. Gunn told the bipartisan group of lawmakers he was open to pushing the issue to the floor if yea votes were committed.

After the Mississippi Today article published on Tuesday, lawmakers have been inundated with correspondence from the public.

When Gunn began presiding over the House on Wednesday morning, his cellphone indicated he had a little fewer than 200 new emails. By the time he left the speaker’s podium less than 90 minutes later, his phone was showing 582 new emails.

He said most of the emails were about changing the state flag — an issue that “generates a lot of passion,” Gunn said.

Emails about the flag have been “coming in so fast you can’t read them,” said Rep. Randall Patterson, R-Biloxi. Patterson estimated he’s received about 1,500 or so emails since the news broke on Tuesday.

“Yesterday, they were all against (the current flag),” Patterson said. “Today, most of them look like they’re for the flag.”

Patterson said he’s undecided whether he supports changing the state flag.

“Right now I don’t have an opinion,” Patterson said. “I’ve got to do more research on the options.”

If the House were to achieve the votes and pass the resolution to change the state flag, it would move to the Senate for consideration. Sen. Derrick Simmons of Greenville, the Senate Democratic leader, said his colleagues are “monitoring what is going on the House.”

Simmons did not rule out the possibility of Senate Democrats making an effort to initiate its own legislation to change the banner in coming days.

In the 52-member Senate, there are only 16 Democrats, and all would likely vote in favor of changing the flag. If all 52 members voted, 19 Republicans would have to vote to change the flag.

Efforts to change the flag have been an issue in the state for decades. But those effort seems to have gained momentum in recent days in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests that began nationwide after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, an African American man, after pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Tens of thousands of black Mississippians and their multi-racial allies have marched the streets in recent days, and the state flag has been a focal point of demonstrations.

Gov. Tate Reeves, who would have to sign or veto the bill if it passed both the House and Senate, has said he opposes the flag being changed solely by legislators without allowing a vote of the people. If Reeves vetoed a bill changing the flag, another two-thirds vote of both chambers would be required to override his veto.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Reeves was asked whether he had received much public feedback on the flag.

“There’s no doubt a lot of conversation surrounding that issue right now,” Reeves said on Wednesday. “That’s a very important conversation to have… My position has been consistent. If and when people of this state decide to change the flag, it needs to be a vote of the people, not politicians in a back room deal in Jackson.

Reeves continued: “I believe the current state flag was voted on in 2001 by the people of our state and they voted to keep it. At some point in the future, people might decide to change the state flag, but that needs to be a vote of the people of our state.”

In the meantime, legislators say they continue to receive correspondence on the issue.

Rep. Debra Gibbs, D-Jackson, said she has received many calls and emails about changing the flag — all of them in support of changing it, which she also supports. She said public opinion appears to be solidly in favor of change.

“I support changing it,” Gibbs said. “I think most people want change. They don’t care what flag replaces it. They just want it changed.”

But Rep. Randy Boyd, R-Mantachie, who said he would not support changing the flag without a vote of the people to change it.

“The emails I am getting from outside of my district favor changing it, but I would say those from inside my district favor the old flag,” Boyd said.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.

Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.