House Speaker Billy McCoy speaks in a halting stutter at times. A stroke shook his frame in 2004. He has recovered to a point, though the scars are still plain. But they don't slow him down.
Conservative talk radio labels the Rienzi resident as a divisive figure, and pundits say he has not been able to unify the House. They're certainly right about the last part.
McCoy is trying to ride two horses determined to bolt in two different directions, and his situation over the fractious House compares badly to the uniform kingship of the state Senate.
The waters in the Senate are relatively calm, largely because those waters no longer have two different kinds of sharks swimming around in them. Republicans dominate the Senate, even if their technical majority is nonexistent. There are very few liberal-minded Republicans in the Senate, but plenty of conservative-minded Democrats.
Former Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck got comparatively few challenges from riled-up progressives during her time over the Senate, and current Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant is equally likely to have few fights this year regarding his own governor-endorsed agenda.
Back over on the House side, however, the fight is more contentious. In the House, the Republican desire for dominion is not complete, and the two parties are still strong enough to put up a fight with each other as they scratch and jostle for influence.
The clanging swords were obvious last August when the House Republican Conference declared they would be supporting anybody who was not McCoy. House Democrats at the time said they expected Rep. Jeff Smith, D-Columbus, to be on hand at the conference to personally accept the mantle as the Republicans' replacement for McCoy.
Republicans at first denied any mention of Smith, though Smith declared he was running for the speaker position soon after the Republican conference's announcement—and received strong support from every Republican voting in the speaker's race this January.
The speaker gets to pick committee heads, and wields considerable influence over what bills end up surviving a particular committee. There's no reason to think the speaker's screening interviews for committee chairmen isn't exhaustive—and no reason to suspect the speaker is unaware of potential chairmen's views on potential bills prior to those interviews.
Republicans came close to taking the House in the same way they dominate the Senate, by using the Democrats' wide philosophical umbrella against them. Conservative Democrats like Smith abound in the House, while any Republican voting too many times outside the preferences of Gov. Barbour gets toppled in the primaries. Division and conquest works in most cases, and came close to success this year.
McCoy won a hard victory against Republicans with a two-vote majority, however. It was a turnout that drove him even more deeply into the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, judging by the personalities he selected to chair committees.
The speaker took a definite leap toward new urbanism this year, appointing big-city legislators such as Jackson Reps. Earle Banks and Credell Calhoun to chairs and moving Jackson Reps. Alyce Clark and James Evans to more influential committees.
He retained a Democrat over apportionment and elections, as well as the Congressional Redistricting Committee, a move that will make forming districts unfriendly to Democrats unlikely following the 2010 Census. He also made a point to retain chairmen like Plantersville Democrat Steve Holland over the Public Health and Human Services Committee—a move that is likely to deliver some Medicaid bills and other health-issue bills that could make the governor look unpopular this year if he fights them.
The speaker, unlike last year, installed no Republicans as chairmen. In this way, he will likely not be able to build upon relationships with members outside a small influential circle. Former Speaker Tim Ford could build alliances across a variety of personalities when it appeared that one particular alliance was not going to pay off. McCoy, perhaps, will not have Ford's advantage. Of course, some argue that McCoy did not burn his own bridges, that his circle of influence had already caged him in the day House Republicans committed to getting rid of him.
The Jackson Free Press recently spoke with Speaker McCoy.
Have you always been a Democrat?
I've never been anything but a Democrat. I grew up in a family that had an all-Democrat background. I've always been an old FDR man.
What kept you from switching over to the Republican side during the 1970s through 1990s? It's always been a popular move among white Democrats.
It never entered my mind.
So what prevented it from entering your mind?
Democrats have always advocated a philosophy regarding making a difference in people's lives. I grew up in a rural community where rural electrification meant much, and the programs that came along to us, like Social Security, TVA and other programs that meant so much. Democrats provided those programs so even farmers and the those who have little influence could have an opportunity to succeed. That's the kind of thing that made so much difference to me, and it's a philosophy that I follow to this day.
Your first run for speaker was also your first successful run for speaker, right?
Yes, I ran four years ago for speaker. I've been elected nine times by the people of Prentiss and Alcorn counties to be their voice in the Mississippi House and two times by the members of the House to be the speaker.
What drove you to want to be speaker? Obviously the job comes with a series of ailments.
It gives a greater opportunity for one person to represent the people at the very highest level. I've worked with many members of the House since 1980. I watched the speaker's position for all these years, and helped other speakers succeed, so when the opportunity looked like it was going to arise, many members came to me and asked me to consider running. I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't had their support four years ago, and I wouldn't have run this time if I hadn't had their support.
What was the atmosphere in the House four years ago? What kind of issues were cooking?
Ultimately, it's always been about how we spend the taxpayers' money. It's always about trying to have quality education, and trying to provide health care for those who cannot provide for themselves, especially the disabled and children. And it has always been about having a quality transportation system in the state, about backing our law enforcement officers and our firemen. And, just like now, it's been about doing everything you can do to provide quality jobs for Mississippi.
Your position is not term-limited, but I've heard some House members speaking of this term of yours as some kind of legacy term. Is that the reality of it?
We've always had long-range plans and short-range plans, and they still involve making a difference in the five or six basic areas that government needs to focus on: education; public health; protection of life and property; economic development; and transportation.
I've heard (Rep.) Percy Watson and some others saying House members will be focusing on trying to get out the (grocery/cigarette) tax swap bill again this year. Do you personally see those two taxes rolled into the same bill again, or could they each be on separate bills this year?
The governor said we'll have a study plan to look at the tax structure of the state. He's already appointed the committee to begin looking at the tax structure. Of course, the House has always had an ongoing effort to adjust the tax structure of the state. Our grocery tax and cigarette tax swap were a part of that. It made sense. We can wait for the big master plan, but when it gets here, it'll probably be cut all to pieces by smaller issues that we've been talking about. But I would say that cutting the tax on groceries is high on our agenda.
The governor disagrees about the need for decreasing the grocery tax. I believe he'd said, "Everybody needs to pay some kind of tax," referring to the grocery tax.
Yeah, I read that. Everybody already pays some kind of tax. He can cut the tax on groceries, and everybody will still be paying some kind of tax when they go to the gas station, when they check into a hotel. Any place they go, they'll already be paying some kind of tax. He wants them to keep paying the high grocery tax, in addition to those other taxes, and he wants them to pay a new tax by taxing a hospital bed, which is reprehensible to me.
I assume you believe that a hospital tax will gravitate down to the patient?
The very next day. It will travel down to them the very next day. They'll get hit with it right in their face while they're laying flat on their backs.
What can the House do about the Medicaid shortfall this year? Will the House have to concede to cuts in Medicaid this year if the shortfall is insurmountable?
The House is committed to the state providing the very same services it is already providing through Medicaid. We have several weeks to work on this, and we'll hopefully accomplish this.
The money would have to come from somewhere else inside the budget if the state doesn't increase revenue. Is there any other budget money that you can envision going into Medicaid?
I wouldn't want to speculate on that. When we get down to the priorities of the budget, everything is subject to being dealt with on a priority basis.
Representatives like Republican Bill Denny (of Jackson) describe you as beyond the mainstream, as if Republicans and conservative Democrats are the real moderates in Mississippi? Do you ever have doubts that maybe you are out of touch with a large percentage of the state?
Not even for a minute. I've been elected nine times, and elected twice as speaker. Re-election doesn't happen to somebody who's out of touch with the people he represents. The precepts and principles by which I believe in government have been on view every day. I don't hide them from anybody, and I still get re-elected.
Conservative Democrats and their Republican allies seem to make up almost half the House these days. Is there a chance that Denny and his friends have a point? Do you think those guys represent the real face of Mississippi?
I'm not going to comment on that. I know that I represent the real face of Mississippi. You can't be a representative since 1980 and be out of touch.
Describe the partisanship that currently divides the House. Did it really start with Barbour, or was it growing before he came along?
It's always been here to a point. That's just government. But Barbour came down from Washington and brought it to a new high. It's been in Washington a long time at a hurtful level. Now it's come to Mississippi, in as hurtful a level as it is in Washington, and I'd say it's moving on down to city and county government on a hurtful level. We should not be in any situation because of political party. People should have different views that aren't dictated by any political party.
How has the emerging hostility in the House affected progress?
Many bills get affected by it, but things still get along. The transportation and highway program bills have not often been such a problem, but you'd think public education bills wouldn't have met the problems they faced because of the good things they do. Economic development bills like Advantage Mississippi, under Gov. Musgrove and Momentum Mississippi under Barbour—both of which serve to attract major business and industry to the state—we've joined together to pass these kinds of bills. We're there (working together) every week, and we'll be there every week.
So while you call the partisanship hurtful, you don't feel it is shutting down the House at this point?
Not at all. Not at all.
What do you plan to do this year to aid the situation? What are you doing to forge ties?
We're going to pass bills in the House that we feel should be the goal of every Mississippian. Naturally, there will be differences, but you will see some very notable legislation in each of these major areas that we spoke of earlier, health care and education and so forth. We should be working together because these bills will so obviously make a difference to the people of Mississippi, whether they're in Gulfport, Jackson, the Delta or anywhere. The unity should, rightfully, be there on many of these bills, despite the growing partisanship.
Hah. Chunky chance of that one, buddy. Were you surprised when the Republican coalition proclaimed they were going to remove you last November?
They voted to vote for anybody but me. I can't say it surprised me. Nothing surprises me in politics or in raising corn anymore.
They claim you've ignored the issues of conservatives. Can you deny that you actively worked to kill tort reform when it raised its head in the regular session?
All major issues have been considered and voted on by House members, all major issues.
But the most recent tort reform had to be settled in a special session.
And during that special session, it still went through the committee process and was addressed by the House. The system still worked.
Conservatives make it sound as if you've had an active role in killing conservative bills.
Any speaker has a great deal of influence over legislation, but we still use the committee system. Bills are heard, and these issues are always dealt with by the committee and then by the body of the House.
Let's use voter ID as a quick example from last year. Voter ID came up. Republicans championed it; many Democrats opposed it. The effort died last year. You were speaker. Coincidence?
Voter ID was considered by committee, and a majority of the House addressed the bill and voted how they voted on it. We've passed voter ID bills. Just because it didn't come out as a particular person or group or faction wants doesn't mean democracy hasn't prevailed and the issue wasn't addressed. The committees and House members did (their) job.
Let's speak on those committees. A lot of chairmanships this year went not only to Democrats, but considerably progressive Democrats. What's your strategy there?
It wasn't a strategy. My purpose was to appoint the best people in their particular positions, and I think I picked the best individuals to serve those particular committees. I based the choices on a lot of things: their tenure, their interest in the subject, their ability to get legislation passed and so forth.
Yeah, but it seems like these particular chairs are not in accord with many of Barbour's beliefs. I'd even predict that the kind of bills these guys let out of committee are going to be thorns in Barbour's hide.
Well, that was not the purpose of appointing them. Our purpose is to pass legislation that will make a difference to the people of this state, to appropriate funds and pass major bond issues that will make a difference and use the taxpayers' money wisely.
I assume there are some bills or issues that you feel these progressive chairs would be more equipped to handle, right?
Maybe you're putting words in my mouth. Let me just say that I feel our chairmen will move forward in a very progressive way to use the resources and revenue that this state has been given to spend in the very best manner. That's the purpose.
I see more Jackson Democrats in chairmanships this year. Credell Calhoun is one example. What's your motivation in that? What will Jackson Democrats do for the House?
We try very hard not to make decisions based on cities or regions. The choices I made were based on tenure, ability and individuals' desire. There are probably 10 or 15 individuals who could have ably filled any of those positions. It was not an easy choice. But we do want to do all we can to help our state capital be the very best it can be, and we're working with the city leaders and the representatives of the people of Jackson to have a very fine and model capital city.
I also couldn't help noticing that no chairmanships feature a Republican. Is that your gratitude for being so openly opposed by the Republican coalition? Were you listening to Rep. Steve Holland's middle finger or was that an accident?
My answer has been and has to remain that the chairmanships speak for themselves.
Can you say then that it was less about hurting Republicans and more about putting the right people in charge?
The chairmanships speak for themselves.
Well, to a point, I suppose. Something I've been meaning to ask you: How did you guys bring around Rep. Linda Coleman, D-Mound Bayou, in the speaker vote? I hear Democrats knew she wasn't initially favoring you and may have marched some of her heroes before her to bring her around in the days leading up to the vote. I also noticed the Mississippi NAACP president sitting very close to Rep. Chuck Espy, D-Clarksdale, on the day of the vote.
Rep. Coleman, like all representatives, will have to speak for (herself). It's not my place to do that.
I notice she's chairman over Fees and Salaries of Public Officers now. Is there any connection between that and her vote?
Rep. Coleman is a super representative who will make a great chairman. She's also a very independent person. Nobody tells her what to do by way of her computer.
Which I've heard is a common way for votes to get around in the House these days. Is it true that the governor's people tell certain representatives how to vote through e-mail?
They do seem to speak with a very unified voice, is all I know. I know a lot more than that, but I'm not speaking on that. I would rather you ask them yourself.
I was talking to former Republican Rep. Clint Rotenberry a few months ago. He told me how he fell out of favor with Barbour on a vote or two, and that he believed the party turned on him and recruited another Republican to unseat him in the primary. He's gone now. Any comment?
None at all.
I notice the oath of office this year contains a promise not to let your vote fall under the influence of another elected official.
Everybody sort of chuckles about that, don't they? That oath has been there for as long as I can remember.
Can you say that Democrats exert no influence over each other in such a manner?
That's a good question. Naturally we correspond with members when we're up against a major issue, but we don't put any pressure on anybody. We just talk to them. We talk to Republicans, too. That's what we've always done. There's no pressure that I can exert on Democratic votes.
How has the close speaker race affected you since then? I've spoken to Espy, who said he was willing to throw his backing behind Rep. Jeff Smith in the speaker's race because he felt the Democratic leadership had put the Delta region on the back burner. What steps have you made to encourage some form of solidarity between House leadership and people like Espy?
We continue to talk. We speak on every major issue, and we're learning in each discussion of more things that we need to be considerate of.
So has there been a new growth of empathy for the Delta region since the election?
We've always worked to make a difference in the Delta, ever since I was elected to the Legislature, and we will continue to do that. We have an outstanding delegation from the Delta who constantly works hard to make a difference there. The same goes for every region of the state, but the Delta has a group of representatives who are dedicated to making a difference not only to their districts, but also to their area as a whole. We're finding that they're becoming more united in their efforts to better the region. That's good. It should get the delegation far in the House.
Adam did a great job with this interview, but after reading it I can't escape the feeling that McCoy has a very effective brick wall that's very hard to penetrate. I wouldn't want to play high-stakes poker with this guy!
- Tom Head
Thanks Adam. Excellent job. Thank God for McCoy. Mississippi needs real giants.
- Ray Carter
Ater all, you don't successfully fight off snakes, lions and bears in the wilderness then upon finding shelter and safety inside a barricade or fortress then leave the door open so that the same devouring forces can easily come into your safe zone and harm you. People think Democrats are dumb!
- Ray Carter
Hah. Chunky chance of that one, buddy.
Only Adam Lynch could get away with that line in an interview. :-P
Really do not know where to post this, but the Sun-Herald is reporting that Rep. Compretta's son was killed in an accident in New Orleans while participating in a parade.