State GOP votes Gunn as new House speaker

JACKSON — State GOP representatives voted yesterday to back Clinton lawyer Philip Gunn as their candidate for House speaker next year, putting him in line to become the first Republican to lead that chamber in 136 years.

The newly elected representatives caucused at Brandon’s City Hall to choose a candidate. Republicans have pledged to unite behind their choice to prevent Democrats from having a voice in who becomes House leader when the Legislature convenes Jan. 3.

Announced GOP candidates for the post included Mark Formby of Picayune, Herb Frierson of Poplarville, John Moore of Brandon and Jeff Smith of Columbus. Republicans took multiple votes in a nearly two-hour session before they settled on Gunn. They wouldn’t immediately give out details on the order of finish.

“The elections of last Tuesday showed us that the people of Mississippi want conservative leadership,” Gunn said. “They gave us a mandate, a sweeping victory in the House of Representatives, and we take that charge very seriously.”

Gunn said his top priorities include a redistricting plan that is fair to Republicans, a law to limit the ability of Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood to give lucrative cases to outside lawyers without legislative approval and one that would require mandatory reporting of suspected sexual abuse of children. That last proposal foundered previously in part because it placed additional restrictions on abortion.

Gunn said Republicans would discuss a speaker pro tem later and that he had made no promises of committee chair positions in his campaign.

“My intention is to have complete representation statewide,” he said. “We’re going to have chairmen from all regions of the state. We’re going to have inclusiveness of all Republicans. Every Republican standing up here is going to have some leadership responsibility.”

With a relatively narrow majority, both Republicans and Democrats said the GOP would probably have to work with the minority to make the chamber function smoothly. Gunn did not rule out naming Democrats to chair positions. Outgoing House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, named no Republicans as chairmen in 2008, a major irritant to the GOP.

“There are qualified people on the other side of the aisle,” Gunn said.

Republican leaders expect to have at least 64 GOP members in the 122-seat House. Of those, 60 convened at yesterday’s meeting behind closed doors. Representatives were issued nametags so veterans and newcomers would know each other, with party members greeting each novice with raucous applause audible from outside the room.

Most of the GOP speaker candidates had been campaigning since well before the election, trying to amass support among returning House members and to help elect new Republicans.

Charles Busby of Pascagoula, who claimed a 35-vote margin over incumbent Democrat Brandon Jones, said Gunn was his first choice, in part because of the support Gunn provided in a highly contentious race. Busby said Gunn helped him raise money, provided campaign tips, and frequently called him to help lift his spirits.

“Philip recognized the seats that were of importance to the state,” Busby said. “He put his energies into helping those candidates become successful.”

The last Republican speaker was Isaac Shadd, a free-born black man who had been an abolitionist and supporter of John Brown before the Civil War. Shadd served as speaker in the Mississippi House from 1874 to 1876, after which white Democrats took control of state government.

Smith, who as a Democrat almost knocked off McCoy in 2008, missed another chance to lead the House. Smith, who switched parties in June, said he planned to support Gunn and be a “good Republican.”

Rep Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said some Republican speaker candidates had made calls to Democrats before yesterday seeking their support.

It’s not clear if Democrats will put up their own candidate when the Legislature convenes.

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