House Speaker Phillip Gunn reversed years of progressive Black participation in Mississippi’s legislative process when he took charge of the House and removed Black legislators from all but two of more than 40 House committees. Today, new House Speaker Jason White offers little improvement.
In Mississippi, committee chairs pick and choose which legislation lives or dies in the spring legislative session. If an ethnicity gets excluded from chairmanships, they are directly removed from the bill-making process. Earlier last year, BGX reported the African American legislative lockout went further than chairmanship denials, however. Gunn often orchestrated decisions on major bills behind closed doors, and then excluded Black representatives from meetings by virtue of their party alignment. In Mississippi, a segregationist leader can still kick Black officials from the legislative process by saying “No Democrats allowed.”
Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, told BGX House leaders even appropriated well-written legislation submitted by Black House veterans.
“A Black Democrat files a piece of legislation that is narrative and needed, and it dies. Then, next year, a Republican comes by and submits your very same bill, and you’re forced to sign on to legislation that’s actually yours,” Hines said.
That was the world under Gunn. But now Speaker Jason White is at the wheel, and he has elevated Black legislators’ two paltry committee leadership in its 52 committees … to four.
“Well, you need a penny to make a nickel.” -- Sen. Juan Barnett
“Well, you need a penny to make a nickel,” said Sen. Juan Barnett, who watches House events closely. “No, it doesn’t represent the (40%) makeup of the state, but it’s better than it was.”
Barnett said the new arrangement puts more Black leaders in more powerful places, if not in a leadership capacity, whereas Gunn religiously banished Black legislators to lesser committees and non-entities.
Some opinions in the House claim White’s shuffle represents a removal of the old guard. Gunn allowed Black Rep. Angela Cockerham, I-Magnolia, to serve as one of two committee chairs as a reward for her role as the only Black House member to jettison fellow Democrat Bo Eaton in 2016 and give Republicans a supermajority. Without her, Eaton’s ouster would have been an all-white coup to erase Black power in the Mississippi House.
White, however, removed Cockerham from her chairmanship over the powerful Judiciary A Committee and replaced her with Rep. Joey Hood, a relative newcomer elected seven years after her. Her removal may have had something to do with intra-party Republican politics. Cockerham invested some of her political stock as a Black supporter of Gov. Tate Reeves in his battle against Democrat Brandon Presley, who carried majority Black support.
Reeves won the governorship last year, but he remains a deeply unpopular politician. He is also a clumsy speaker and an uncharismatic “black hole of waning ambition,” who has gone about as far as his Republican Party label can take him, according to House critics. These same critics predict the second-term governor will be a lame duck “who’s gonna find out what it is to go to the political graveyard.” The graveyard stink could already be rubbing off on his more fawning allies.
Inter-party rivalry likely shaped many of the new chairmanships this session. The Mississippi GOP contains three factions based on political ideology: The ultra-far right “Freedom Caucus, and the slightly less over-the-top “Republican Caucus” and “Conservative Coalition.” Factions threw their support behind different candidates in last year’s GOP primaries and caused major rifts in the primary for lieutenant governor, among others. Ultra-conservative candidate Chris McDaniel battled and lost against fiscally moderate Delbert Hosemann for lieutenant governor, and his Freedom Caucus allies in the House are paying a price for their choices.
Just as Hosemann knows the governor does not support the moderate tone he imposes over his Senate, Speaker White is moving problematic rivals away from their strengths. Gunn’s old guard and their potent institutional knowledge could boost unwanted bills and kill his pets, including measures to finally expand Medicaid, which Reeves hotly opposes. Many of Gunn’s veterans remain on some of the House’s powerful committees, but White has taken care to saturate those same committees with enough personal allies to counter their strength. Members claim 15-year veteran Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, sought leadership of the House Public Health and Human Services Committee, but White instead plunked her on the Corrections Committee—despite the closest prison to Currie’s Brookhaven home being 54 miles away. Currie did not immediately return calls for comment.
Rep. Missy Magee, R-Hattiesburg, was vice-chair of the Public Health and Human Services Committee under Gunn, but now chairs the influential House Medicaid Committee. Political observers in the House believe this is because White believes she can’t successfully mount a political threat. Rep. Sam Creekmore, R-New Albany, meanwhile, is now in charge of the Public Health Committee, even though one House member blithely contends he is “somebody nobody knows,” and another describes him as simply “a landscaper.”
African Americans with institutional knowledge have some role in the House’s new State Affairs Committee, including House minority leader Robert Johnson, who now serves as vice-chairman, but White’s allies suffuse the biggest committees. The Chair of Johnson’s State Affairs committee is Rep. Hank Zuber, R-Ocean Springs, who nominated White as speaker. Rep. Shanda Yates, I-Jackson, also clearly did the smart thing by backing leadership. After visibly falling in line, Yates went virtually from "nowhere" in the House to vice chair of the Judiciary A Committee.
However different White and Gunn may feel about committee leadership in setting their agenda, the two still hold to the conservative philosophy of under-representing the state’s Black population when it comes to leadership. Like the white leaders preceding the Voting Rights Act, excluding Black faces just comes so easy.
Adam Lynch is an editor and reporter. Send story tips and freelance pitches to email@example.com.