Mississippi could be on the verge of what used to be one of the fiercest spectacles in politics — a speaker’s race.
Speculation that three-term Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, will challenge incumbent Gov. Tate Reeves in the Republican primary in 2023 has gotten tongues wagging and House members strategizing on who might run to be the next presiding officer of the chamber.
No doubt, probably every representative in the 122-member chamber believes he or she would be the best person to succeed Gunn as speaker should he opt to challenge Reeves.
But, because of the rise of partisan politics in the state, the race, if there is one, will not play out like past speaker’s races as former Speaker Billy McCoy used to say “in the cold light of day.”
Nowadays, the race for speaker is almost anticlimactic, a far cry from the past. The party that wins a majority in the 2023 election will caucus behind closed doors before the Legislature convenes in January 2024 and select a choice for speaker. All members of the majority party — most likely the Republicans — will cast their vote for that person on the opening day of the legislative term, ending any suspense.
That is what happened when Gunn was first elected. Soon after it became apparent after the November 2011 election that Republicans had captured a majority in the House for the first time since Reconstruction, those newly elected members met behind closed doors in Brandon, away from the Capitol, and selected the speaker from five candidates. After that process was completed, Republicans reemerged and announced they were unanimously behind Gunn.
In the olden days when party politics was not a major issue, members would announce their intention to run for speaker, resulting in a very public, bare-knuckled political campaign that often ended with a contested election where members had to publicly cast their vote for speaker on the opening day of a new four-year term.
The last public and perhaps wildest speaker’s race culminated in 2008, when McCoy was elected to his second term as speaker by defeating fellow Democrat Jeff Smith of Columbus by the narrowest margin of 62-60.
“The thing was a street brawl,” Brandon Jones recently said on Mississippi Today’s “The Other Side” podcast. Jones, the current policy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Action Fund, was a freshman Democratic House member in 2008. Jones had won what was believed to be a heavily Republican open seat in Jackson County by 11 votes and faced tremendous pressure to vote for Smith, who had the support of the state Republican Party apparatus.
“One of the first calls I get (after being elected) is from Gov. Haley Barbour to ask me to vote for Jeff Smith,” Jones recalled.
Despite the pressure, Jones said he never wavered in his support of McCoy, who shared his political philosophy on issues like education and infrastructure.
Had Jones not won that election, it is not clear how Mississippi history would have been altered.
If a Republican had won the district, most likely that person would have voted for Smith, a conservative Democrat who had the support of all House Republicans, at the time a minority in the chamber. That vote would have resulted in a 61-61 tie.
The tension and uncertainty were palpable in the House chamber on the day of the election. There were two tie votes as members tried to elect a temporary speaker — either Ed Blackmon, who had the support of the McCoy forces, or Robert Johnson, who had the support of the Smith allies.
As the third roll call began, then-House member David Norquist of Cleveland approached Smith’s desk, and then the two walked toward the exit of the chamber, presumably where a deal would be offered for Norquist to abandon McCoy and vote for Smith. But as they exited the chamber, Linda Coleman of Mound Bayou, who on the two previous votes had supported the Smith forces, cast her vote for Blackmon and thus symbolically for McCoy. Coleman’s vote sealed Smith’s fate and led to the end of what might have been the most hotly contested speaker’s race in the state’s history.
Outgoing three-term Secretary of State Eric Clark presided over the process. The Constitution mandates the secretary of state preside over the House on opening day of a new four-year term until a presiding officer is elected.
Delbert Hosemann, who was elected to succeed Clark as secretary of state, would not be sworn in until two days later. But Hosemann, recognizing the historic significance of the day, was in the chamber to witness the events.
There might be a race coinciding with the 2023 election for House speaker, but it will not be like that 2007-08 race — a true donnybrook.