Democratic Rep. Billy McCoy reclaimed his seat as House speaker by only two votes Tuesday. House members, including new members Kimberly Campbell and Adrienne Wooten—both of Jackson—approved McCoy by a 62-to-60 vote, handing Rep. Jeff Smith, D-Columbus, a very narrow loss this year.
McCoy had predicted a close win at the end of last year, claiming a majority of members were backing his bid for speaker. Doubt crept in during the election for temporary speaker, however. The temporary speaker presides over the election of the speaker and can offer a tie-breaking vote. The outcome of the interim election is frequently an indicator of the speaker vote, and often reveals itself as a kind of test vote to gauge the temperament or preferences of House members. Rep. Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, one of the more progressive members of the House, nominated Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton. Reps. Tommy Shows, D-Ellisville, and Sidney Bondurant, D-Grenada, nominated Natchez Democrat Robert Johnson.
Progressive House members lined up behind Blackmon, while conservative members tested their power by backing Johnson.
The Legislative Black Caucus did not show the solidarity that members claimed last year, with Rep. Linda Coleman, D-Mound Bayou, voting against the majority of the coalition and backing Johnson—who also happens to be a Caucus member. Her vote elicited one or two gasps of surprise. Caucus member Chuck Espy, D-Clarksdale, also voted in favor of Johnson, gathering some stares from House members.
The vote for interim speaker ended with a 61-61 split on the first vote, prompting a second vote—which also netted an even 61-to-61 split. House leadership impatiently merged a third vote with a roll call, which swung a narrow majority to Blackmon by a 62-to-60 tally. Coleman joined the ranks of other Caucus members in favoring Blackmon on the third vote. Espy did not.
The vote mirrored the tally that put McCoy back in charge of the House, with Coleman favoring McCoy, and Espy and Johnson siding with Republicans.
Smith is a Democrat who regularly votes with Republicans, and who enjoyed unquestioned support from Republican House members in the speaker vote. Republican leadership settled for Smith because they did not have the numbers to elect a genuine Republican speaker.
Espy said he voted for Smith because Smith could bridge the gap between Republicans and Democrats.
"I was simply trying to make sure that Republicans, Democrats, moderates and liberals are able to really come together and work in a bipartisan effort to make things work down in Jackson," Espy said. "… I knew that Jeff represented that middle (ground) and would be able to negotiate and work with (Gov.) Haley Barbour and the Senate and deliver something for the House of Representatives."
Espy, whose hometown is in the Delta, said he believed Smith would "deliver for the Delta," had he become speaker.
"I've had many conversations with Jeff, and he's said the Delta was near and dear to him and he would actually be able to deliver some things to the Delta. In the last 48 hours I hadn't seen anything of substance (from McCoy) so I just said, 'Let's get somebody who can work in the middle and try to get an agenda passed,'" Espy said, explaining that Smith had promised to recognize the pro-Delta initiatives of the Delta Task Force—which had made no progress in the last legislative session.
Rumors circulating prior to the vote suggested Johnson and Espy would side with Smith in the vote.
The election of Adrienne Wooten, D-Jackson, may have been pivotal to the close vote. Wooten won a close election against Republican incumbent John Reeves during the November election and managed another skin-of-the-teeth win in the December re-vote against Reeves. Reeves said he would have supported Smith in the speaker's race just prior to the December re-vote, while Wooten declared her support for McCoy.
McCoy's success means the committee appointments will likely feature more moderate or progressive chairmen over committees—which could, in turn, mean the return of a few old thorns to Barbour's hide. McCoy had actively advocated for the increase of the state's 18-cent cigarette tax to $1, a push that former tobacco lobbyist Barbour would like to see fall to the wayside. Barbour has actively fought the tax in the past, throwing a volley of reasons not to support it, be it his claims of damage the tax would do to municipalities or a convenient blanket opposition to any tax increase.
McCoy said he plans to keep an emphasis upon House legislation favoring education, transportation and health care.
"Working together, we're going to continue to set the pace in order that Mississippi will not be status quo. We will not accept status quo. We will work every day for education, health care, law enforcement and economic development opportunities for all Mississippi communities, so we can compete throughout this nation and this world," McCoy said through tears, after taking the podium. "(We will) balance off the work of the Senate and the governor and the courts … and Mississippi will move forward."
McCoy's election also means he will be in the position to appoint a Democrat over the Apportionment and Elections Committee who will favor Democrat-friendly districts when it comes time to re-draw state House districts following the 2010 Census. House members said they suspected Barbour was watching the speaker's race particularly close this year for that reason.
The House also elected Rep. J.P. Compretta, D-Bay St. Louis, as speaker pro tempore over Johnson.