House Speaker Philip Gunn did not put rumors about his political future to rest during the Neshoba County Fair.
The third-term speaker told Mississippi Today last week that he is in a “constant evaluation” about whether he will run for governor, for another term as speaker or not run for anything at all. That indecision has left many members in the 122-member House of Representatives openly questioning what they should expect in the final year of the term.
Normally by this time in a four-year term, speakers planning to remain in office for another term go out of their way to allay speculation about their future. Traditionally, speakers want to affirm their commitment to presiding over the often contentious chamber to fend off potential challengers. Any sign of an open speaker’s post or uncertainty draws potential candidates like bees to honey, and running a lower legislative chamber is hard enough without questions and doubts about the leadership. And power abhors a vacuum.
“I honestly don’t know what’s going on, and I’m not sure that anybody knows right now,” said longtime Rep. Manly Barton, R-Moss Point. “… (Gunn) running for governor was the rumor we’ve all heard, but there’s been no announcement. He has never addressed it with me … We heard it pretty much during the session last year up until a month ago … There’s been a lot of conjecture, guessing based on what we’ve been seeing — (Speaker Pro Tem Jason White) fundraising, and the assumption there was fixing to be a change in leadership … There’s been no announcement, and we had been led to believe there was be an announcement.”
Barton continued: “It can get squirrelly if people are not sure who the leadership is going to be or what the leadership team looks like, when things are unsettled. That’s the reason members are calling around trying to find out who’s on first and who’s on second.”
Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, said, “Absolutely people are talking about it. But I have not personally had the speaker tell me he is not running. But people are discussing it.”
READ MORE: If Gunn runs for governor, there will be speaker’s race, but not like old-time donnybrooks
The numerous rumors about Gunn’s future prompted colorful state Rep. Michael Evans, an independent from Kemper County, to announce during his speech last week at the Neshoba County Fair — one day before Gunn spoke — that he was endorsing White, R-West, as the next speaker.
“I don’t know anything for sure,” Evans said when asked he if he was certain Gunn was stepping down and White, perhaps Gunn’s closest lieutenant in the House, was running for speaker. “I have heard things like everyone else that Gunn is leaving. But he has not said. I don’t know.”
Evans added, “Everybody said Jason is going to run for speaker. I went ahead and threw my support out there just in case.”
At the same time, Evans pointed out Gunn needed to come back for one more term to be fully vested in the state retirement system and to be able to draw his full pension. He questioned whether he would give up that retirement.
“Maybe that is not that important to him,” Evans said.
Of course, if some of the rumors are true, Gunn might not lose his state pension in his new position. For months, it has been rumored that Gunn was considering a challenge of Gov. Tate Reeves in the 2023 Republican primary. In recent weeks, though, those rumors have cooled off.
There also has been speculation associating Gunn with the vacant post of executive director of the Mississippi Community and Junior College Board and with the vacant position of head of the Mississippi Development Authority. Ironically, Reeves would appoint the MDA executive director. And to take either post, it appears Gunn would have to retire sooner rather than later.
To perhaps add credence to some of the rumors, White has been fundraising statewide, appearing to stand in for Gunn in some instances.
White could not be reached for comment.
“I don’t see a scenario where Jason runs against Philip,” said House Ways and Means Chair Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, who is close to both legislators. “I don’t see that happening.”
Of course, the main person spurring the rumors is Gunn by not saying unequivocally he is running for re-election to his state House seat, which includes portions of Hinds and Madison counties, and to the post of speaker.
In the summer of 2002 rumors began percolating that four-term incumbent Speaker Tim Ford was not seeking re-election in 2003. Reacting to those rumors, Ford, a Baldwyn Democrat, released a statement in the summer of 2002 that if anything helped to spur the rumors instead of quelling them. He said he would make a final announcement in October.
In October of that year, the Legislature was in the midst of one the longest and infamous special sessions in state history — an 83-day special session on the issue of making changes to the civil justice system to make it more difficult to sue businesses. Some have speculated that the uncertainty of Ford’s future made the normally powerful speaker unable to control the House, prolonging the special session. In reality, though, there also were other difficult factors that prolonged the special session.
At any rate, in December 2002, just before the start of the final legislative session of the four-year term, Ford finally made his announcement: He would not seek re-election.
For much of the 2003 session, various House members jockeyed for the open seat. Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, prevailed and served two terms as speaker. McCoy announced his retirement after the final session of his second four-year term.
He was succeeded by Gunn. The question now is will Gunn vie for his fourth term as speaker, attempting to tie Ford as the second longest serving speaker in state history.
Besides White, Barton is among a handful of lawmakers who have been mentioned as a potential speaker or pro tem in the future.
“I’ve never shied away from that,” Barton said. “I would certainly enjoy being in a leadership role. I don’t think it’s a secret I want to be in a leadership role — not necessarily speaker, but in leadership.”
The reason there are questions about the leadership of the House, Lamar said, is that he does not believe Gunn has made a final decision on his political future.
“There are options,” Lamar said for the speaker.
READ MORE: Will Gunn run? Speaker has signaled 2023 challenge of Gov. Tate Reeves