By: Sid Salter
In a recent column, I wrote about the major time in Mississippi history that an obscure Mississippi constitutional relic from the days of “Jim Crow” laws came to electoral fruition in deciding a statewide election.
It was 20 years ago in 1999 when Democrat Ronnie Musgrove – then the incumbent lieutenant governor – won a tight general election gubernatorial race against Republican nominee Mike Parker, Reform Party nominee Jerry Ladner, and independent Helen Perkins.
Musgrove was elected governor – running for an open seat since then-incumbent Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice couldn’t succeed himself a second time – with a plurality of 49.6 percent of the vote to Parker’s 48.5 percent of the vote in a race that was ultimately decided by the Mississippi House of Representatives. Ladner got 1.1 percent of the vote while Perkins took 0.8 percent. Musgrove won the popular vote by some 8,344 votes.
But Musgrove and Parker each carried 61 of the state’s 122 House districts. When the vote went to the House to settle it, Musgrove won by a margin of 86 to 36 in the House floor vote. Out of 86 Democratic votes in the House that day, 84 voted for Musgrove. Of the 33 Republicans in the House that day, 31 voted for Parker. All three independents voted for Parker. Two Democrats voted for Parker, while two Republicans voted for Musgrove.
If Musgrove won the popular vote, why did it matter that Parker tied him 61-61 in the state’s 122 House districts?
Strictly considered, it’s because of Article V, Sections 140, 141 and 143 of the Mississippi Constitution of 1990. Those provisions were added to the state’s Reconstruction constitution in a naked attempt to make it difficult if not impossible for a black candidate to win a statewide election. The constitutional provisions required that a candidate win popular vote majority and a majority (with a plurality) of the state’s House of Representative districts as well.
If those two-tiered tests are not satisfied, then the constitution required that the matter be settled by a vote of the House of Representatives. The constitutional provisions did not, however, require the House members to vote as their constituents did or even with their own party. It was a wide-open, political free-for-all.
Yet for more than a century, the 1890 provisions were nothing more than constitutional oddity. But in 1999, the stars came into alignment in the Musgrove-Parker showdown. And while post-Civil War white Democrats put the provisions in place to keep black from winning elections, the same provisions in 1999 were used by black and white Democrats alike to box out the Republican contender, Mike Parker.
One of the ironies of that 1999 votes involved then-Democratic State Rep. Blaine “Bo” Eaton of Taylorsville. Eaton’s district voted in favor of Republican Mike Parker. But in the constitutional showdown vote, Eaton voted with his fellow Democrat Ronnie Musgrove. A significant number of Legislative Black Caucus members were happy enough to use the 1890 constitutional provisions to keep a Republican out of the Governor’s Mansion.
Fast forward to 2015. Incumbent Democratic Rep. “Bo” Eaton battled GOP challenger Mark Tullos of Raleigh to a 4,598-vote tie. The outcome of the race would decide whether Republicans would have a 74-seat, three-fifths “super majority” in the House. It was statewide news.
As House Democrats stuck together and voted together to settle the 1999 Musgrove-Parker race, House Republicans did the same thing in 2015 with the Eaton-Tullos tie vote. After more than three hours of debate, the House voted 67-49 to unseat Eaton and declare Tullos the winner.
By all prognostications, we have a tight governor’s race in 2019 between Republican Tate Reeves and Democrat Jim Hood. The GOP has about a 60 percent majority currently in the House.
Four black plaintiffs are asking the federal courts to level a playing field that was stacked in 1890. As Nov. 5 is looming, the judicial clock is ticking on whether those same Jim Crows laws help decide another Mississippi election.