By JACK ELLIOTT JR.
JACKSON — The 2012 election of a new speaker to lead the Mississippi House of Representatives is taking on a new look — one that is more partisan, with fewer uncommitted members for one candidate to try to snatch from another.
The speakership is one of the most powerful positions in state government. While the speaker’s actions can affect the whole state, the job is not filled by the general electorate at the ballot box. Come January, the 122 House members will select someone as their leader.
Speaker Billy McCoy chose not to run for re-election to the House this year, ending eight terms at the Capitol. McCoy is a populist Democrat from Rienzi and won a second term as speaker by only one vote in 2008. A large number of rural conservative white lawmakers cast ballots for his challenger, Rep. Jeff Smith of Columbus, who was then a conservative Democrat and had the support of Republicans.
Smith is now a Republican and is one of several in the GOP who’s already seeking support in the 2012 speaker’s race.
In past speaker’s races, lawmakers were lobbied to pledge their vote to a particular candidate, with little attention to party affiliation. Theoretically, 62 signed pledge cards meant a speaker candidate was in — unless a member flip-flopped, so it was good to have a few extra signed up.
The political landscape was different. Little existed in the way of partisan politics, even as recently as the 2004 speaker’s race, when McCoy was elected unanimously. Mississippi’s political world has changed.
“I am firmly of the belief that ... Republicans are going to have to support a Republican for speaker,” GOP Rep. Greg Snowden of Meridian told The Associated Press this past week.
Snowden, who’s been in the House since 2000, said any Republican or Democrat voting across party lines would gamble on being secure enough to survive any possible political fallout. He said the question is how many would survive if lawmakers run again in newly drawn House districts in 2012.
“How safe can you be?” he said.
Snowden said Republicans can be expected to caucus before January to unite behind a consensus candidate for speaker.
Rep. John Mayo, a Democrat from Clarksdale, said the Democrats will likely do the same.
“I expect we will each have one person that we want to support,” Mayo told AP.
“A number of Democrats defected the last time, and that kind of made it close,” he said. “I think about all of the Democrats who have defected, have switched parties. The Democrats we have left ... I doubt any of them will defect.”
Presently there are 67 Democrats, 54 Republicans and one independent in the House.
“We need eight more seats and need to hold what we have. I like our odds,” Snowden said.
Mayo said if the Republicans win a clear House majority — more than one or two votes’ difference — the Democrats must make a decision.
“The real question is will we, the Democrats, figure out which Republican we can live with and try to get that person elected?” Mayo said. “I don’t see any regular Democrat going for a Republican candidate who sticks to the all-or-nothing views of the party. I would lean toward someone who at least has an open mind.”
Those who’ve announced for speaker include Democrats Bobby Moak of Bogue Chitto and Cecil Brown of Jackson; and Republicans Smith and Sidney Bondurant of Grenada.
Other potential candidates are Republicans Mark Baker of Brandon, Philip Gunn of Clinton, Mark Formby of Picayune and Herb Frierson of Poplarville; and Democrats Tyrone Ellis of Starkville and Preston Sullivan of Okolona.