If Republican Speaker nominee Rep. Philip Gunn (R-Clinton) assumes the speakership in January, he’ll have the thinnest legislative record of any person to have ever reached such heights. Gunn hasn't taken the podium many times during his legislative tenure, and the few times he has, he’s been careful to avoid potentially hostile questions and offered performances that capitol observers deemed “not ready for prime time.” He hasn’t chaired a committee, nor has he vice-chaired a committee. Heck, there’s not even a portion of the Mississippi Code that has been passed into law that bore Gunn’s name on the top of the bill. So what makes him the choice of the handful of Republican legislators who voted for him over Rep. Jeff Smith (R-Columbus) and Rep. Herb Frierson (R-Poplarville)?
It's likely that Gunn's ability to take orders was the characteristic that made him the pick of party insiders. While his leadership style and ability remain unknown, Gunn has proven to be an unwavering foot soldier. Every time Governor Babour called on select House members to stake out an unpopular position, Gunn was there. Notable examples include voting to keep poisonous Chinese toys in Mississippi, voting with the Governor on eminent domain, and voting with the Governor to block funds to the state Wind Pool.
While Rep. Smith and Rep. Frierson are both long on legislative experience and are widely considered to be shrewd operators in the House chamber, those qualities matter less when you’re not asking the Speaker to make big decisions. With Gunn, party leaders and friendly special interests assume the Speaker’s seat by proxy. That formula, more than anything, explains why newly minted representatives and doting special interests tipped the scales in Gunn’s favor over Frierson and his coalition of seasoned legislators. With Republicans in control of the executive branch and the Senate, insiders needed an obedient peacetime consigliere, not a candidate determined to make the House relevant.
Under this new dynamic, the next four years will be intriguing. Haley Barbour succeeded in developing and implementing a top-down style of leadership that worked as long as he was the man in charge. With Barbour gone, it will be interesting to see if this model is sustainable. It’s not likely that Bryant will be a neat fit for this role as he has, to this point, demonstrated chronic uncertainty on major policy initiatives and on more than one occasion lost control of his own caucus in the Senate (see Redistricting 2011). It’s too early to tell if Tate Reeves will be able to assume the reigns, but even if this is eventually the case it will take time. This leadership vacuum leaves a gaping hole that party leaders and groups like the Mississippi Manufacturing Association will likely exploit for the foreseeable future. Again, under these terms, selecting a party guy to oversee day-to-day operations in the House makes sense.
It is telling, though, that Philip Gunn has ascended despite the bubbling controversy at Morrison Heights. Why, in these early stages of newfound Republican control, do you trust a virtually unknown quantity with a potential legal problem? After all, Gunn isn’t the only member of that body who has demonstrated steadfast obedience to his party.
Perhaps this is the first real sign that Barbour's legacy on the Mississippi Republican Party was personal and not institutional. Changing course early in the game isn’t easy, but Barbour excelled at acting decisively to prevent potential political pitfalls-even when those pitfalls were two or three moves down the line. He also wasn’t given to blind allegiance to individuals who hadn’t proven themselves, particularly when his party had skin in the game. With Barbour on his way out, there simply isn't anyone left with the chops or stomach to pull off a switch. The folks who made Gunn the Republican candidate are calling the shots, and the Republicans who voted for Frierson know that that one vote of separation at their caucus in November is as good as thirty today. Gunn may not be ready for prime time, but the folks holding the strings are guessing he won’t have to be.
So here we are: the adult has left the room and the Tea Party/Republicans are running the show. Let the fun begin.