Gunn is House Republicans’ choice for speaker

Published 11:39 am Tuesday, November 15, 2011

BRANDON — A Clinton lawyer whose House district covers part of Warren County was tapped Monday by fellow GOP lawmakers as their choice for House speaker.

The vote puts Philip Gunn in line to become the first Republican to lead the Mississippi House of Representatives 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.

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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, whose House District 56 covers Hinds, Madison, Yazoo and part of northeastern Warren County.

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 Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, to give lucrative cases to outside lawyers without legislative approval and one that would require mandatory reporting of suspected sexual abuse of children, a proposal that 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 chairman 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 will probably have to work with the minority to make the chamber function smoothly. Gunn did not rule out naming Democrats to chairman 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 attended Monday’s closed-door meeting. Representatives were issued name tags 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 he provided in a highly contentious race.

Busby said Gunn helped him raise money, provided campaign tips, and frequently called him.

“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.