January 10, 2012 12:26:00 PM
By JEFF AMY
JACKSON -- Phil Bryant has won seven straight elections, beginning with a race for state House in 1991. But he lost his first run for public office, a bid to become a Rankin County supervisor in 1988.
The loss is one reason Bryant is in line to take the oath as Mississippi's 64th governor today.
It connected him with a group of supporters who helped elect Bryant to the Legislature and Kirk Fordice as governor in 1991, in a Republican breakthrough. Fordice and Bryant bonded, leading the state's first modern Republican governor to name Bryant as state auditor in 1996.
Parts of the Bryant biography have been polished to a high shine. Born in the Delta town of Moorhead in 1954. Son of a diesel mechanic and a housewife. A Hinds County deputy sheriff who cut his political teeth in the Jaycees. Took a trip to the White House as a Jaycee in 1986 and was inspired when President Ronald Reagan urged listeners to run for office.
Bryant's most consequential decision may have been to buy a house on Bay Park Drive near the Ross Barnett Reservoir in July 1985. He and his wife, Deborah, looked to the Jackson suburbs to raise a family, and "got a great bargain on the house," Bryant said.
Rapidly growing Rankin County's Democratic establishment was crumbling after Operation Pretense. The FBI sting yielded the indictment of 57 county supervisors statewide for corrupt purchasing practices.
In Rankin County, two supervisors were toppled. Bryant jumped into a GOP primary to replace one, ending up in a runoff against Larry Swales.
Swales was backed by a supporters led by Billy Powell and Gary Harkins
"We had an absolute hand-to-hand combat in the community," Harkins remembers. Powell said about 100 volunteers were working for Swales, while Bryant's campaign basically consisted of himself and a friend.
"Phil like to worked us to death," Powell said.
"We decided by the end of the campaign that this Phil Bryant was not a bad guy," Harkins said.
Campaigning outside a fire station on election day, Powell and Bryant made a deal. The loser would endorse the winner.
Swales won and went on to a long career in Rankin government, serving today as chancery clerk.
Bryant says that could have been him: "I might be a Rankin County supervisor."
Moving up to the House
The future soon pointed to the Capitol for Bryant. Powell told him Swales' supporters would back him for state House.
During the run-up to the 1991 election the chance to meet Fordice came at a party hosted by Powell.
Many GOP leaders supported then state Auditor Pete Johnson, who had switched from the Democratic Party.
Powell agreed to introduce Fordice at a reception Bryant attended.
Fordice eked out a lead in the primary, then pulled away in the runoff. Rankin was the cornerstone of both victories.
"Everywhere I carried Fordice, I carried Phil," Powell said. "That's how they really got to know each other."
"They were sort of kindred spirits," said Andy Taggart, a Bryant supporter and former Fordice chief of staff. "Cowboy-boot wearers, jeans-and-bomber jacket kind of guys."
In the House race, Bryant was opposing incumbent Democrat Frances Savage.
"In my second term, the county made a huge shift to the Republicans and I did not," said Savage.
"She's a sweet lady," Bryant said. "She was just in the wrong place at that time."
Bryant won 55 percent of the vote.
"That election, '91, was such a turning point and it was such a surprise that everyone took notice of what happened in Rankin County," said Mark Garriga, a Republican who won a Harrison County House seat in 1991 and later succeeded Taggart as Fordice's chief of staff.
Bryant was sworn into a House with 22 Republicans and 100 Democrats.
Fordice struggled to get his way and often relied on Bryant. "He was one of the few people in the whole Legislature that Fordice trusted," Powell said.
One test was the 1992 push to raise the state sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent, dubbed a "penny for education." Bryant initially voted for the bill, but then Fordice vetoed it, setting up a pressure-packed showdown to override the governor.
"Phil was inundated with telephone calls and messages there at the Capitol all day, and at home at night," Harkins said.
Bryant said he held a meeting with constituents. "I told them, 'I promised two things, that I wouldn't raise my salary or your taxes."'
Some Republicans broke ranks, with the override getting two more votes than needed. Bryant stuck by the governor.
"It toughened him up and it also endeared him to Kirk Fordice," Harkins said.
Four years later, Fordice repaid the support.
State Auditor Steve Patterson got into trouble for submitting forged paperwork to avoid paying car taxes. In August 1996, Attorney General Mike Moore announced he would take the case to a grand jury. Bryant and Fordice were together, 1,500 miles away, when they got the news.
"We were standing on the floor of the Republican National Convention in San Diego and Gov. Fordice said 'I think you would do a good job as state auditor,"' Bryant remembers.
When it later became clear Patterson would resign, Bryant's Rankin County friends lobbied, too.
"I picked up the phone and called the governor and said 'I've got a favor to ask you. I want you to consider Phil Bryant for auditor,"' said Powell, then state GOP chairman. "And the governor said 'He's my choice, too."'
It was a prize, a statewide office with more than three years until the next election.
When Fordice offered him the post, Bryant hesitated. It would mean giving up his job as an insurance investigator, plus his House seat.
"I need to go talk to Deborah," Bryant remembers telling Fordice. "This is about a $10,000 cut in salary."
"Go talk to Deborah and be back tomorrow," Bryant says Fordice told him, correctly assuming the answer would be yes. "We want to make the announcement tomorrow afternoon."
At the end of Fordice's second term, Republicans hoped the party would step toward majority status. Instead, the GOP regressed, with Democrat Ronnie Musgrove edging to victory as governor and Democrats romping in many statewide races.
The one statewide Republican left was Bryant. While the defeat was a GOP disappointment, it turned into a blessing for him.
"I ate a lot of pressed ham and Blue Lake green beans," Bryant said. "When anybody needed a Republican, I tried to be there."
Bryant cruised to re-election in 2003, and then raised his sights, targeting lieutenant governor.
Elected lieutenant governor in 2007, he championed immigration reform and other conservative issues. Bryant defeated Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree, a Democrat, in the 2011 governor's race.
Despite the years climbing Mississippi's political ladder, supporters say Phil and Deborah Bryant are little changed.
"They're the same folks they were 20 years ago," Harkins said. "If anything, they're just a better, more experienced version of themselves."
Bryant said he still plans to go to church in Rankin County, and hopes to escape the fenced-in confines of the Governor's Mansion.
"I don't think I'll stop going into the grocery store or my favorite Dollar General," Bryant said.
But starting today, it will be as Gov. Bryant.
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