Dems Bolster Power in Legislature | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Dems Bolster Power in Legislature

Photos by Adam Lynch

The Mississippi Legislature moved into Nov. 7 looking on the surface much as it did prior to the elections, party-wise. But education proponents say the new Legislature will likely be more friendly to issues such as full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program and an increased tobacco tax, and the new House line-up may mean trouble ahead for Republican districts.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour pulled about 60 percent of the vote, while another Republican, State Auditor Phil Bryant, will replace outgoing Democrat-turned-Republican Amy Tuck in the lieutenant governor's office.

As lieutenant governor, Bryant will make crucial committee appointments that will set the tone for the Legislature when the new session begins in January. Tuck did as much herself, assigning chairmanships to personalities such as Sen. Tommy Robertson, R-Moss Point, who chaired the critical Finance Committee and killed the controversial $1 cigarette tax bill, but was defeated in the primary.

Incumbents in the Senate managed to fend off most rivals, though three Republicans, Sens. Richard White, Ralph Doxey and James Walley, and one retiring Republican, Sen. Travis Little, surrendered their seat to Democrats David Blount, Bill Stone, Tommy Dickerson and Eric Powell, respectively.

Walley's race was particularly convoluted, with both Walley and Dickerson having a history of jumping parties. Walley beat Dickerson in an earlier election after Dickerson switched from Democrat to Republican, then Walley made the same move last year, enjoying an influx of Republican campaign cash for his trouble. That proved troublesome indeed: Dickerson, now a re-converted Democrat this year, soundly toppled Walley on Nov. 7.

Republicans claimed one seat, that of Sen. Gloria Williamson, D-Philadelphia, who lost to Republican Giles Ward. The new arrangement shifts the Senate from a 27-25-arrangement favoring Republicans to a 28-24 headcount, favoring Democrats. The majority status, however, could be in name only, thanks to a plethora of Republican-voting Democrats like Sen. Nolan Mettetal, D-Sardis.

Mettetal barely fended off the advances of a more moderate Democrat in his own primary, winning a race against Mona Pittman by about 88 votes. Pittman contested that race, alleging voter irregularity, but Circuit Court Judge Samac Richardson canceled the Mississippi Democratic Party Executive Committee's order for a new election. Pittman said she will appeal Richardson's decision to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

"Even with the new wins, I'd say the Democratic majority in the Senate is still tentative," said Sen. Deborah Dawkins, D-Pass Christian. "There are too many Democrats who don't identify with the party."

Still, new Senate Democrats are more progressive on education funding, over all, as are some of the Republicans who replaced other Republicans in the primaries, said Nancy Loome, executive director of education-lobbying group The Parents' Campaign.

"We don't just count Ds and Rs at The Parents' Campaign. There were several Republicans, like Billy Hudson and Briggs Hopson, who ran their campaigns on public education funding, and who replaced Republicans who had been less supportive of the issue," she said.

"We think MAEP will fare well this year also because Barbour has gotten on board with fully funding it, and Phil Bryant has said he would fully fund it, first thing. We're going to assume people will stick to their word unless proven otherwise."

Democrats also replaced other Democrats during the same primary. Conservative Democrat Sen. Scottie Cuevas of Pass Christian—who opposed the tobacco tax/grocery swap—lost to Democratic attorney David Baria in the August primary. Cuevas enlisted the help of Hinds County Republican Party Chairman Pete Perry in challenging the vote. A Hancock County Circuit Judge upheld the election results, though Baria said his opponent has told him that he would appeal the decision to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

The House endured a variety of flips with some unseated incumbents and open seats going to opposite sides. Three Dem seats that went Republican this year include District 1, with Republican Lester Carpenter replacing Ricky Cummings, District 15, with Mac Huddleston replacing Pat Montgomery and District 99, with Republican Bill Pigott replacing retiring Democrat Robert Vince.

Democrats had their own victories, with Russ Nowell replacing James Gregory in District 43, Brandon Jones taking the vacated seat of Rep. Carmel Wells-Smith in District 111, and Democrat Adrienne Wooten unseating Jackson's John Reeves in District 71. Reeves said he would dispute his election in court, claiming voter irregularities.

"Some of my voters said my name was not even on the ballot," Reeves told the Jackson Free Press. "That's a constitutional violation, and I'm willing to pursue this."

All in all, the even tally of flips leaves the House with the same 75-47 Democrat-favored ranking it had prior to the election.

The Mississippi Black Caucus may have potentially grown new members, with Wooten's election in the House and Powell's in the Senate, though Wooten's election is still in dispute, while Powell told the JFP he has "not committed to any group just yet."

The number of House Democrats will have a clear impact on Barbour's effort to demote House Speaker Billy McCoy. McCoy said the day after the election that he had achieved "the support of more than a majority of the members of the House of Representatives," and released a list of 62 representatives ready to throw in their votes with him.

McCoy has drawn GOP ire by appointing more progressive chairmen of House committees, and he frequently opposes Barbour on many issues, from MAEP funding to the state's minimum wage. Republicans announced a recent plan to oppose McCoy's re-election to speaker by lining up a slew of votes from conservative Democrats in the House to side with Republicans. McCoy said the positive results of the Nov. 6 elections, and the growing front of his sympathizers in the House, have effectively stalled that effort.

As speaker, McCoy could install a very solid Democrat over the House Apportionment and Elections Committee—just in time for the redrawing of the state's districts following the 2010 census. If the committee chairman gerrymanders districts favorable to Democrats, Barbour would have no veto power to stop it.

The elections generated a curious pattern this year. Republicans now occupy all statewide offices, except the office of attorney general, which is still held by Jim Hood. While Republicans are happy to declare dominance on that front, they must concede that Democrats still dominate local elections.

Marty Wiseman, executive director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government noted the incongruity. "Looking at the state Senate races, particularly when (Corinth Republican) Travis Little's district changed from Republican to Democrat when Eric Powell won, and then over one district from that where Republican Ralph Doxey got beat by a Democrat, you've got the First Congressional District that (Republican) Roger Wicker occupies almost totally blue all the way across, except for three little Senate seats. I've been working hard trying to figure out how that can be."

Pundit Jere Nash said Democrats are able to compete on the local level thanks to their wider presence. "The further away a voter is from a candidate, the more party identification matters in Mississippi. The closer the voter is, the less it matters."

Nash said that for legislative candidates, voters almost invariably know those candidates, and they know the incumbents. "And for Mississippi voters, what they know about you as a person matters more than party ID (except for places like DeSoto, Rankin and Lamar). But for statewide candidates, the voters rarely know them, so they tend to vote along party lines, Nash said. He added that Jim Hood was the exception, but had better name ID because he was the incumbent.

Mississippi Democratic Party spokesman Terry Cassreino said Democrats fare better when the campaign money is more balanced.

"Haley Barbour had $9 million plus. At least $2 million of that, I think, went to the Republican Party, and they dished that out to their candidates. Democrats were up against this big-money machine in Haley Barbour. They put some of that big money to use on about two races in the Senate, and we lost one there, but for the most part, the money was more even in the local races."

Ousted Sen. Gloria Williamson was one of the Democrats targeted by that big money in her race.

"As of Oct. 31, my opponent had about $159,000. I had $60,000. Then you have to take into account the seven or so color brochures the Republican Party mailed out attacking me, and the brochures from 'economic progress' organizations, and the brochures from the NRA. I was out-competed on every level," Williamson said. "It was a tough fight, but I guess people around here like their guns more than groceries."

Dawkins' opponent also got a huge boost from the Republican Party, though Dawkins' district is less conservative than Williamson's district.

"Personally, I wonder if I have the strength to ever do this again," Dawkins said of her narrow victory. "They were saying all kinds of terrible things about me, and they had more money to get that nonsense across, no matter how untrue it was. I mean, can you imagine them trying to say I'm against education?"

Dawkins is one of the loudest proponents of fully funding MAEP.

Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Jim Herring said the Democrats needed to get more financially organized.

"We try to put up the best candidates we can and raise the money, and they need to do the same," Herring said. "I expect they will be better at it in the next few years."

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