GOP candidates line up for House speakership

JACKSON — Five Republicans are seeking the speakership of the Mississippi House, anticipating a takeover of the chamber from the Democrats, who refuse to concede that they’ll lose control of the 122-member chamber.

Rep. Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville, who has served as majority leader, said yesterday by his party’s count, 118 races have been decided, with each party taking 59. That would leave four in question, but Republicans are leading all four contested seats.

State GOP chairman Arnie Hederman said he expected to capture each of the four.

Announced GOP candidates for speaker are Jeff Smith of Columbus, Mark Formby of Picayune, Herb Frierson of Poplarville, Philip Gunn of Clinton and John Moore of Brandon. Republican House members plan to gather early next week and select their party’s candidate by secret ballot. The House will select a new speaker when the Legislature convenes Jan. 3.

Democrat Billy McCoy, who has held the job the past two terms, did not seek re-election to his House seat.

Hederman said he also held out the possibility that some Democratic House members would defect, swelling the margin.

In the Senate, longtime Sen. Gray Tollison of Oxford yesterday announced his switch from Democrat to Republican. The GOP already had a majority in the Senate before the election, but victories and Tollison’s defection will push it to 31-21.

Tollison said he switched because it was how he could best serve the state and his district, which includes all of Lafayette County and parts of Tallahatchie and Yalobusha counties. He said he could effectively advocate for public education and other causes within the party.

Tollison, elected Tuesday to his fifth term, said he had been talking to Republicans about switching for about a year. He decided to make the jump last month, but waited until after the election to announce.

State Democratic Party executive director Rickey Cole said he found the switch odd considering Tollison’s history as a trial lawyer and Democratic donor.

“It will certainly be interesting to see how Sen. Tollison reconciles his newfound partisan identity with his lifelong advocacy of liberal causes,” Cole said in a news release.

In one of the House races where Democrats were holding out hope, incumbent Democrat Brandon Jones of Pascagoula trailed Charles Busby by 35 votes with all ballots totaled. Jones did not concede, saying he was considering his options.

Officials in some counties said they were still wading through absentee and affidavit ballots in the House District 28 match between Democrat David Dallas and Republican Tommy Taylor and the District 105 match between Republican Dennis Debar Jr., Democrat Dale Kimble and independent Latricia Cornelson.

The Associated Press could not confirm a final count in House District 25, where Walls Mayor Gene Alday appears to have unseated incumbent Democrat John Mayo of Clarksdale. After checking results yesterday, Mayo said he was “85 percent to 90 percent sure” he would not challenge results. He said a foul-up in a Tunica County precinct where some voters did not get ballots including the House race was too small to swing the contest.

While Republicans plan to unite behind a single candidate for speaker, Democrats have not announced their plans although several have expressed interest in the position.

“When it’s all over with, we’ll have a Republican speaker,” Frierson said.

Formby, Frierson and Moore said they are not seeking written pledges, a departure from past speakers’ races. Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, said that Smith, Frierson and Gunn are probably the leading candidates. But Formby said that according to various counts, more than 30 House Republicans haven’t committed to any candidate, meaning they may not make a decision until the caucus gathers.

“Everything’s fluid,” said Frierson, who pledged a smooth-running, cooperative House

Republicans plan to take votes and eliminate the last-place finisher each time, until someone achieves a majority. “All of us are trying to get to be everyone else’s second choice,” said Formby, who emphasized his conservative credentials.

With a secret ballot, it will be harder to trade votes for committee chair or vice chair positions, Moore said.

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