(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Speaker Philip Gunn announced on Wednesday that he will not seek reelection to the House next year, ending the third-longest speakership in state history.

“It has been one of the greatest honors of my life to serve as speaker of the Mississippi House,” Gunn said in a statement. “I am extremely grateful to the people of District 56 who have given me the opportunity to serve them for the last 20 years and to the members of the House who have entrusted the role of speaker to me for 12 years. I believe we have moved Mississippi in a positive direction, and I am proud of what we have accomplished together and look forward to another productive session in 2023.

“Having said that, I have decided not to seek re-election for House District 56. My service as Speaker coming to an end does not mean I will not be open to future opportunities to serve,” Gunn continued. “I love our state and will always work to make her better. I believe there will be an opportunity for me to serve our state soon and when that time comes, I will be ready.”

Gunn made the announcement first to his GOP House caucus members at a meeting at the Capitol on Wednesday.

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, praised his House counterpart.

“My friend, Philip Gunn, has decided to pause his public service to the state,” Hosemann said. “His fingerprints exist on most of Mississippi legislative history for his 12 years as speaker. From child trafficking to tax reform (legislation), he provided consistent conservative, faith-based leadership to his colleagues.” 

House Education Chairman Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, one of Gunn’s top lieutenants, said: “I wasn’t surprised, but for selfish reasons I am disappointed because I think Philip has done a wonderful job. He is the best speaker I have known in my time. His ethics, his morals and his wanting to do the right thing — that’s in his DNA. He doesn’t just talk, he walks the walk. You’ll see that in anything he decides to do in the future … He said he doesn’t have any plans right now. He’ll rejoin the private sector at some point. It’s just going to be a huge loss not only for the House of Representatives but for the state of Mississippi. That’s why I hope he will get back into the public arena.”

Gunn’s announcement ends more than a year of speculation on Gunn’s future — particularly whether he might make a gubernatorial run in 2023. He made some such overtures last year, including fundraising and statewide travel, but had appeared to cool on the idea of challenging incumbent Republican Gov. Tate Reeves. He had also been discussed more recently as a possible candidate to run the state community college system.

A Clinton resident, Gunn was elected to the House in 2003 and soon rose to prominence as a key voice in the Republican caucus. When the Republicans garnered the majority in the House as a result of the 2011 elections, Gunn was elected speaker by the 122-member House, the first Republican to hold that office since Reconstruction.

Gunn helped increase Republican numbers in the House, with the 2015 elections resulting in a GOP supermajority. He successfully championed numerous tax cuts during his time in office, but has so far been unsuccessful with what he said has been his No. 1 policy priority, elimination of the state personal income tax.

READ MORE: Gunn whips final House votes to change state flag

A social conservative and devout Baptist, Gunn also supported elimination of abortion. This was accomplished with a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case involving a Mississippi House bill Gunn supported.

“For those fortunate enough to truly know Speaker Philip Gunn, we are certain that the state of Mississippi and her people are much better off as a result of his leadership as speaker,” said House Ways and Means Chair Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia. “Most importantly, he is a God-fearing family man and it has been a tremendous honor to serve with him and call him my friend.”

State Rep. Nick Bain of Corinth, a former Democrat who changed to the Republican Party before the 2019 election, said, “He has been good to me. He has been good to my constituents in Alcorn County … I have nothing but good things to say about him.”

Gunn was one of the first Republicans on the statewide level to advocate for removing the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag. Gunn did so after a white supremacist killed nine people at an African American church in Charleston, S.C. The killer had featured a Confederate flag in his social media posts.

READ MORE: Will Gunn run? Speaker signaling 2023 challenge of Gov. Tate Reeves

For years, Gunn’s Republican caucus did not express interest in following his lead on the state flag. But in 2020 legislation came out of the House championed by Gunn and ultimately approved by the full Legislature retiring the state flag and establishing a panel to recommend a new flag to place on the ballot. Mississippi voters overwhelmingly approved the new flag sans the Confederate symbol.

House Speaker Protem Jason White, R-West, is considered by many as the heir apparent to the speakership, although Gunn reportedly did not endorse a successor to the caucus on Wednesday.

“He told everyone that it is not for him to turn his seat over to anyone, but would be up to the House of Representatives,” Bennett said. “… But I think Jason (White) is the lead person and I’d be surprised if Jason was not the next speaker of the House.”

READ MORE: Speaker Philip Gunn scales back his income tax elimination proposal

White, one of Gunn’s closest allies, confirmed that he had formed a political action committee and “has been fairly successful” in raising funds to help his Republican colleagues in the House seeking reelection.

He said he would focus on his own reelection to the House, and to work on the reelection efforts of House colleagues and “then figure it out from there.”

Bain said of a possible White candidacy for speaker, “If Jason runs, he will have my full support.”

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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.

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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.