Gov. Tate Reeves put himself in a no-win political position during state flag debate

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Capitol employees remove the state flag in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, July 1, 2020.

Gov. Tate Reeves was not a participant Wednesday in the momentous occasion where the state flags that flew over the Mississippi Capitol were removed — the official retirement of the banner featuring the Confederate battle emblem that had flown over the state since 1894.

As Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann delivered the flags to the Mississippi Museum of History in a ceremony officiated by the Department of Archives and History, Reeves was holding his first news conference since June 18 to give an update on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bobby Harrison

Reeves already had scheduled his news conference before the legislative leaders set a time and date for the flag furling ceremony.

Both Gunn and Hosemann spoke of the significance of the day where the flag was retired.

Perhaps it could be argued that the absence of the governor at such a pivotal event in the state’s history was itself symbolic.

The flag debate that culminated on the weekend of June 27 with the Legislature voting to replace the flag put Reeves in a near-impossible political situation — a situation he most likely never saw coming until it was on top of him like a ton of bricks.

During his gubernatorial campaign in 2019, Reeves made it clear he would not support changing the flag without a vote of the people. But unfortunately for Reeves, Gunn never made that commitment. Since 2015, the House speaker has been on record as supporting changing the flag.

And as momentum grew nationwide and in Mississippi in recent weeks to address issues of racial injustice, the state flag stuck out like a sore thumb. Soon media reports surfaced that there were behind the scene talks among a bipartisan group of lawmakers to change the banner.

Still, Reeves must not have been too concerned. After all, despite Gunn’s opposition, the speaker had never tried to pass a bill changing the flag because he could not muster the simple majority needed to pass it. And at the late date in the session, a renewed effort to change the flag would require what appeared to be an impossible-to-achieve two-thirds majority vote.

But as talk persisted about changing the flag, Reeves was asked about the issue at his near daily news conferences held to provide COVID-19 updates. He reiterated his belief the flag should not be changed by the Legislature.

As the issue progressed, members of the media began to ask Reeves whether he personally believed the flag was offensive and should be changed. He refused to answer time and again, though he did say he believed one day the flag would be retired.

At his June 18 news conference, which was his last before the one he held during the flag ceremony, Reeves re-stated: “I believe very strongly if you are going to change the flag, it ought to be the people of Mississippi who make the decision.”

Finally, on June 25, as momentum grew, Reeves appeared to relent. Reeves said on social media that if the Legislature voted to change the flag, he would not veto the bill. He said because he knew a veto would be pointless, considering it took a two-thirds majority to override a veto — the same super majority it took to remove the flag late in the session.

And then on June 27 — a rare Saturday session of the Legislature — as Hosemann worked to garner the final votes needed to obtain the super majority in the Senate, Reeves announced he would sign the bill to change the flag.

There has been speculation that Reeves’ announcement that day helped garner the final vote or two needed to pass the bill. Perhaps the answer to that question will never be known, but it is worth noting that what Reeves said that Saturday morning was not much different than what he’d said a couple of days earlier when he announced he would not veto the legislation. After all, there was not much difference in not vetoing legislation and signing legislation. Under either scenario, the bill would have become law.

At any rate, later that day, both chambers passed by more than the two-thirds margin the resolution allowing the bill to change the flag to be considered. Then the next day, that bill passed both chambers by margins larger than two-thirds.

Two days later, when Reeves signed the bill into law in a private ceremony at the Governor’s Mansion where only three “pool reporters” were allowed to attend, he uttered for the first time his support for a new flag.

By then, six of the eight statewide officials had voiced support for changing the flag.