Republicans back key Democrat for speaker
By By Terry R. Cassreino / assistant managing editor
Oct. 5, 2003
A group of Republican legislative candidates met privately last week in Jackson at the request of party leaders who hoped they would find an alternative candidate for speaker of the state House. They didn't.
By the time the meeting adjourned Wednesday afternoon and House candidates were polled, the most votes a total of 19, including 16 from Republicans expected to easily win re-election went to Democrat Billy McCoy.
McCoy, a respected, 23-year veteran lawmaker from Rienzi who heads the powerful tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, said he was humbled by the result and his Republican support.
Despite a crowded field of hopefuls, McCoy has long been considered the overwhelming favorite to win the post as presiding officer of the 122-member Mississippi House of Representatives.
The speaker, who is chosen from among House members in a roll call vote at the start of each four-year term, is without a doubt the most politically powerful position in state government. The speaker appoints House members to chair and serve on 30 separate committees that consider and draft legislation. He also holds immense influence over chairmen and often dictates the fate of legislation.
Despite McCoy's front-runner status, other lawmakers still have decided to take a stab at the job. Among the list of candidates who remain in the running are state Reps. Warner F. McBride, D-Courtland; Steve Holland, D-Plantersville; Bobby Moody, D-Louisville; and Joe Warren, D-Mount Olive. Add to that list the newest candidate: Jim Barnett of Brookhaven, who recently converted from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. Barnett said late last month he plans to seek the speaker's job.
Interestingly, however, the 12-year lawmaker asked fellow Republicans on Wednesday not to consider him when they took a straw poll that day on who they would back for speaker. Barnett said he asked to be removed from the ballot because he faces an opponent in November.
That request, however, raises two key questions: Is Barnett seriously running for speaker? Or is he just trying to impress voters in his district to increase his chances of winning another term in the Legislature?
Other Republicans at the meeting said they believe McCoy likely will win the job in January. When that happens, they said, those who backed McCoy from the start could play key roles in the state House.
One Republican also added this caveat: Despite state GOP Chairman Jim Herring's repeated wishes, don't expect the House to organize in January along party lines. It won't happen.
If Republicans did organize the state House along party lines, the minority GOP delegation would be rendered useless and unable to hold committee chairmanships and other positions of influence and power.
That's not the way things happen in the Mississippi Legislature. As it stands today, any member of any party is eligible to serve as chairman of House and Senate committees. All members are on equal footing.
McCoy wouldn't comment on speculation about Republican plans for or against organizing along party lines. But he did say he believes party shouldn't matter when it comes to the Legislature.