Phil Bryant: Tea Party Governor | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Phil Bryant: Tea Party Governor

Speaking at the 2012 Mississippi Economic Council’s annual Hobnob event, Gov. Phil Bryant touted international trade with Canada and charter-school legislation, which passed a year later.

Speaking at the 2012 Mississippi Economic Council’s annual Hobnob event, Gov. Phil Bryant touted international trade with Canada and charter-school legislation, which passed a year later. Photo by R. L. Nave.

Workers spent more than a week erecting scaffolding and building a platform for the first inauguration of Phil Bryant on Jan. 10, 2011.

By the start of the week, the patriotic red-white-and-blue bunting was draped from the stage, and plastic white folding chairs were neatly arranged in rows on the south side of the state Capitol, where governors have historically taken the oath of office.

Within a day, the event had to be called off because of rain and moved inside the building to the House of Representatives chamber out of concern for "the safety of the people attending the ceremony," a campaign spokesman at the time.

The threat of thunderstorms also postponed the planned inaugural parade, where marching bands from high schools around the state as well as Hinds Community College and University of Southern Mississippi, both colleges Bryant attended.

Other groups scheduled to attend, the Associated Press reported, included "military units, a Confederate heritage group, the Mississippi Choctaw princess and Little Miss Rankin County."

The incoming governor himself was directly involved in the logistics of the party. "I have consulted with forecasters, and based on available information, have decided to exercise caution and cancel the parade. ... I was so excited to see the enthusiasm surrounding this event and appreciate everyone's hard work and preparation," he announced.

In the background, a different kind of storm brewed. Overshadowing the soggy inauguration plans was the story of more than 200 pardons Bryant's predecessor, Haley Barbour, issued days before he left the office. With Barbour's national stature as a powerful Washington, D.C., lobbyist and former Republican National Committee chairman who flirted with the idea of running for president, the pardons eclipsed Bryant. 
 On inauguration day, reporters were more intent on getting a quote from Barbour about the pardons than from the 64th governor of the state.

An inauguration parade scheduled for a week and a half later was also rained out; the event never took place.

No-Frills Leader

Now, four years later, Gov. Phil Bryant is in a favorable position to finally consummate his governorship with all the pomp and circumstance of a proper inaugural.

Bryant's opponent in the Nov. 3 general election is Robert Gray, a long-haul truck driver who shocked the political establishment in August, winning the Democratic primary by, in his own words, doing nothing.

It made Gray a bit of a media darling and thrust him into the folklore of American politics, but with Gray's campaign treasury just .001 percent of the size of Bryant's $1.8 million war chest, evening the odds will require some combination of apathy, arrogance or anti-Bryant sentiment among Republicans and a groundswell of historic proportions for Democratic-leaning voters.

Rickey Cole, the chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party, predicts higher-than-expected Democratic turnout for the public-school funding referendum known as Initiative 42, which will help the party's nominee.

"I think he'll do alright. He's doing exactly what he's supposed to do," Cole told the Jackson Free Press.

In any case, the strategy for Cole and other Democrats is to hammer away at Bryant for playing it safe and strictly by playbooks handed to him by national Republicans and Mississippi tea-party conservatives who tout Bryant as one of their first gubernatorial successes.

Their hope is that Mississippi Republican policies, including Bryant's, will motivate the Democrats' base of African Americans along with enough poor, working class and rural whites to help Democrats regain control of the state House of Representatives. 
 Those policies include failure to provide adequate public-school funding, through the Mississippi Adequate Education Program formula, as well as the GOP leadership campaigning against the proposed constitutional mandate known as Initiative 42.

At the same time, Bryant has thrown just enough red meat to his right-wing friends to stave off a serious primary contender. In addition to publicly critiquing President Barack Obama's immigration policy, Bryant called for outlawing abortion in Mississippi. When Bryant signed the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2014, which civil-liberties groups believed could open the door to wider discrimination of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, Bryant invited a group of conservative religious leaders, including Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, to the ceremony.

Bryant's bank account notwithstanding, dislodging him will prove challenging because political observers agree that the incumbent hasn't done anything to make enough people mad enough to vote him out of office or to sit on the election's sidelines in protest.

Hayes Dent, a lobbyist and former chief of staff to Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice, who has known Bryant for four decades, describes the governor's political and leadership style as slow and steady.

"Phil has just been a steady hand. He's a guy who's been in the Legislature. He's run a state division of audit. He knows the craft. I know all these guys and have to work around all these guys, and he's been able to ably lead agencies," Dent said. "I don't see a lot of showboating with Phil Bryant."

Right Place, Right Time

The running joke in Jackson political circles is that Phil Bryant is just three handshakes away from being a Hinds County sheriff's deputy.

In other words, Bryant's career is largely the result of being in the right places at the right times and just likable enough to move up the ladder.

Born Dewey Phil Bryant, named after his father, a diesel mechanic, in Moorhead (current population: 2,327), Bryant attended Hinds Community College and got his bachelor's degree at the University of Southern Mississippi. Bryant has said he was dyslexic as a child and had to repeat the third grade, which colored many of the educational policies for which he would advocate during his gubernatorial tenure.

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Gov. Phil Bryant, along with Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, is busy helping to fend off Democratic assaults against legislative Republicans and to defeat Initiative 42.

In the mid-1970s, he became a Hinds County sheriff's deputy. In 1991, Bryant won a seat in the state House of Representatives representing Rankin County. Five years later, after state Auditor Steve Patterson resigned and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of filing a false affidavit to avoid paying back vehicle taxes, Gov. Fordice appointed Bryant to fill in as auditor.

Calling Bryant his "best ally in the House of Representatives," Fordice said then he believed Bryant's experience in law-enforcement investigations made him the "ideal candidate for this job."

David Hampton, editorial director at The Clarion-Ledger in the early 2000s, calls Bryant "the being there candidate" for his serendipitous ascent in state government, but he gives him high marks as state auditor.

"I think he's a well-liked guy, he's a nice guy. He has integrity, was involved in local politics and knew all the right people. Being appointed state auditor, I think he did a good job. I think he was independent—that's more of a nonpartisan position—but he was really independent, and it helped him get known in the public's mind," Hampton said.

As auditor, Bryant made all the usual demands on local officials accused of embezzling or mishandling public funds and property to make restitution to taxpayers.

Then, in 2006, Bryant commissioned a report that concluded that undocumented immigrants cost state taxpayers millions of dollars based on "significant education, law enforcement and health care costs, as well as substantial lost tax revenues and other economic losses."

Even though the report's preface states that its findings represent only a snapshot of the impact of illegal immigration rather than a comprehensive study, the document has been widely cited and criticized in the state as the basis for every attempt at immigration crackdowns for the past decade. In 2007, Bryant defeated then-state Rep. Jamie Franks, the Democratic nominee, to succeed Amy Tuck as lieutenant governor.

The same year, Barbour won election to a second term as governor. Barbour had a way of overshadowing everyone, including the next in line to the governor's seat, Bryant.

"Anybody in the shadow of Haley Barbour would have been secondary and I think that has been his role and continues to be his role. Haley Barbour was such a strong governor," Hampton said, adding of Bryant: "He's been sort of in the background."

In Barbour's Shadow

Where Barbour was the consummate pragmatist albeit politically conservative, observers say Bryant is pragmatic but still a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. 
 In fact, Bryant is credited for his ability to finesse the line between mainstream, old-guard Republicans and the emerging activist tea-party wing of the party.

Dent, the lobbyist, said when he became active in politics as a teenager in the 1970s, the GOP was building itself up in Mississippi. At the time, only a handful of regulars were at 555 Tombigbee St. in Jackson, the former state Republican Party headquarters. Along with figures from the first generation of white Republicans in Mississippi, such as Billy Mounger and Clarke Reed, were Haley Barbour and Phil Bryant, Dent said.

In 1991, Kirk Fordice became Mississippi's first Republican governor since Reconstruction and helped the party establish a foothold in statewide politics. Two governors later, Barbour, a Republican power player from Yazoo City who had helped cement the "southern strategy" of targeting southern whites into the new Republican Party, returned to run for governor and, subsequently, reshaped the office.

Thanks largely to Barbour's D.C. connections and their checkbooks, he was able to strengthen the office of governor, which was set up in 1890 to be weak in case the state's numerous African Americans succeeded in electing a governor. 
 Cole, the Democratic chairman, points to a story Bryant likes to tell about luring Japan-based tire manufacturer Yokohama to Clay County by giving Japanese executives cowboy boots. Bryant, who often wears boots monogrammed with his initials, once joked that the gift was representative of innovation in economic development.

"That's as intellectually sophisticated as you'll ever hear from Phil Bryant," Cole deadpans.

But Bryant's folksy everyman persona drew the attention of the tea party in Mississippi. After defeating Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree in 2011, one year after the national tea-party helped Republicans regain control of the lower house of Congress, the tea party began touting Bryant's election as one of the movement's first gubernatorial successes.

Bryant was proud to have the moniker, telling TV reporters at the time: "(The tea party is) asking for illegal immigration to be stopped by the states. There's nothing wrong with that. That's violation of state law. They're talking about fair taxation for everyone here. I just enjoy talking to them. They're good, faithful people, very patriotic."

Fire-Breathing Ideologue?

David Hampton does not believe Phil Bryant is a fire-breathing ideologue but says the governor is reactive to the right flank of the GOP, perhaps out of fear.

"I think he's scared to death of the tea party," he said. "He's reactive to that wing of the party to his own political detriment sometimes and certainly to the state's."

Bryant's allegiance to tea-party conservatism has shaped his governorship. Bryant, who co-chaired the failed Initiative 26 for so-called "personhood" rights for embryos, joined Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves in backing 2012 legislation to require abortion-clinic doctors to be board-certified OB-GYNs with local admitting privileges.

"I think it's historic," Bryant said during the signing of the bill. "Today you see the first step in a movement I believe to do what we campaigned on—to say we're going to try and end abortion in Mississippi."

Opponents of the law would later use that admission as a legal argument that state leaders crafted the measure specifically to undermine women's constitutional right to an abortion, guaranteed by Roe vs. Wade. A federal lawsuit over the law's constitutionality is before the U.S. Supreme Court, which will rule on the law this term.

Bryant has embroiled Mississippi in other ideological battles, including joining a lawsuit against the Obama administration for its decision to stop deporting children brought to the U.S. illegally as children. However, no issue has loomed as large as Bryant's strident opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

In summer 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the linchpin of the act but said states were not required to expand Medicaid, the joint federal and state health-care program for low-income people. Bryant attempted to strong-arm the state's insurance commissioner and fellow Republican, Mike Chaney, into killing the state insurance exchange for people to shop online for plans.

Chaney refused, touching off a Republican civil war over health care with Bryant, who oversees the Division of Medicaid. In the end, the federal government put the kibosh on the idea of state exchanges and developed a portal on the state's behalf. It was a loss for state Republicans, but Bryant fought on. During the 2013 legislative session, when Democrats demanded an up-or-down debate on Medicaid expansion, Bryant interjected.

"In Mississippi, as in many other states, a particular subject of debate is whether or not to expand the Medicaid program, our state's largest and most costly entitlement program," Bryant wrote in an open letter. "In our own Legislature, the issue has become so heated that many Democrat [sic] lawmakers are choosing to suspend the current Medicaid program that cares for the blind, aged and disabled in order to force a decision on Obamacare expansion. Cooler heads must prevail."

Democrats are seizing on the Republican leadership's rejection of the Medicaid expansion, which they say would bring 20,000 jobs and improve health for 300,000 Mississippians at minimal cost to the state.

Brandon Jones is a former state representative from Pascagoula who lost his seat in 2011 when Republicans took the state House of Representatives, and thus control of the Legislature. He is now the executive director of the Mississippi Democratic Trust, which is working to help Democrats recapture the House, partly by advocating for rural hospitals.

Rural hospitals nationwide and Mississippi have struggled in recent years in part due to reduced congressional appropriations for Medicare, the health insurance program for the elderly, who tend to make up a larger share of patients at rural hospitals. 
 Medicaid expansion would stem the tide, Democratic proponents say.

"At a time when states are seeing their health-care infrastructure boom and all kinds of innovations," Mississippi is falling behind, Jones said.

For now, Bryant is sticking to his guns. His campaign declined requests to make the governor available for an interview. However, when pressed by the JFP about Medicaid expansion at a Hattiesburg press conference Oct. 22, Bryant said: "If you look at where we're at talking about the budget earlier, we're (at) over $1 billion with just the state funds with Medicaid alone. If you expand that to another 300,000 Mississippians, which is the proposal, there's no way to fund that additional cost that will be a burden upon the state not only beginning in 2017 but for the rest of the lifetime of the program," Bryant said. He added that he hopes a Republican president will roll back some provisions of the ACA.

"I think you're going to see a newly elected president, and I think you're going to see dramatic changes in that program into the future, so for us to go into that and assume that debt from this point forward, knowing that there's a very important, a very good possibility that that important piece of legislation could be changed, I think would be ill-advised for us," Bryant continued.

Yet, Cole said Bryant's opposition to Medicaid undermines the governor's own agenda, laid out in his first state of the state address, to build a medical corridor along Woodrow Wilson Avenue in Jackson, from 1-55 to the Jackson Medical Mall. 
 Cole believes the corridor would have injected enough energy into the economy to overcome any short-term tactical advantage to be gained with denying Obamacare—a fact he expects to reap his party rewards on Nov. 3. "He cut off the health-care industry's nose to spite Barack Obama's face," Cole said.

Comment at www.jfp.ms/2015elections.

Top Donors*

∝ Gov. Phil Bryant ∝

Charles Sciana, Simtex $30,000

MS Medical PAC $20,850.48

OL Sims, L & A Contracting $20,000

Sharles Southerland, L & A Contracting $20,000

Electric Power Associations of Mississippi $20,000

Richard Wax, Wax Seed Company $15,000

Howard Ice $12,100

Ergon State PAC $10,000

Centene PAC $10,000

Neshoba County Republican Party $10,000

Total Cash on Hand: $1.86 million

∝ Robert Gray ∝

Not itemized $3,263

Total: $3,263

*Through Sept. 30, 2015

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