Field grows in race for Mississippi House speaker

July 20, 2011 10:43:00 AM



JACKSON -- The race for Mississippi House speaker is attracting more candidates, with Democratic Rep. Cecil Brown becoming the latest lawmaker to say he wants to become presiding officer of the 122-member chamber. 


Brown, of Jackson, is chairman of the House Education Committee and one of the top budget writers in the House. He''s also an ally of the current speaker, Democrat Billy McCoy of Rienzi. 


McCoy is not seeking re-election to the House seat he has held since January 1980. He has been House speaker since January 2004. Several representatives are expected to jump into the speaker''s race, which will be decided by House members in January. 


The House speakership is one of the most powerful jobs in Mississippi politics. The speaker appoints House committee chairmen and assigns bills to committees, actions that can help determine whether proposals live or die. The speaker and the lieutenant governor both serve on the 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Committee, and they take turns serving as chairman. 


Brown said Tuesday that he sent a letter to Democratic incumbents this month, seeking their support for speaker. He is unopposed for re-election in his House district. 


"Under the leadership of Speaker McCoy, we have been successful in balancing the budget and avoiding most of the draconian policies championed by Republicans," Brown wrote. "But the battle is not over. In coming years we can fully expect Republicans to continue to introduce legislation that will be devastating to working people, and we must be prepared to defeat their proposals." 


Brown also wrote: "House Republicans are not our enemies. They are our friends and colleagues. Their voices deserve to be heard. But many of the proposals they have offered over the last eight years would have terrible consequences for the working people of the state of Mississippi." 


Democrats now hold a 68-54 advantage over Republicans in the House, but it''s unclear whether the partisan balance will hold after the Nov. 8 general election. 


Among those committed to running for speaker are Republican Reps. Jeff Smith of Columbus and Sidney Bondurant of Grenada and Democratic Rep. Bobby Moak of Bogue Chitto. 


Smith challenged McCoy for the speakership in 2008, losing 62-60. Smith was a conservative Democrat but switched to the Republican Party when he filed for re-election this year. 


Other potential speaker candidates are Republican Reps. Mark Baker of Brandon, Philip Gunn of Clinton, Mark Formby of Picayune and Herb Frierson of Poplarville and Democratic Reps. Tyrone Ellis of Starkville and Preston Sullivan of Okolona. Each says he has been approached by colleagues about running. 


Baker, who''s the House Republican leader, said the party''s goal is to flip enough seats to take over the House majority. If that happens, he said Republican intend to elect one of their own as speaker. Although he acknowledged that he might run for speaker, Baker said Tuesday: "Until everything falls into place, I don''t see why anybody is saying anything about anything." 


Speaking of the speaker''s race, Formby said: "I am absolutely considering running, depending on the advances we make in the primary and general election on the Republican side and whatever inroads I could make among my Democratic colleagues." 


Sullivan said he is "blessed" not to have an opponent in his House race. He said he''s not ready to commit to the speaker''s race. 


"You know if you announce you''ve got to get out there full-blast and do it," Sullivan said. 


When Democrat Ray Mabus was governor from January 1988 to January 1992, Brown served as Mabus'' chief of staff and, separately, as state fiscal officer. Brown was elected to the state House in November 1999.