By: Sid Salter
Tuesday’s inauguration of newly-minted Republican Gov. Tate Reeves ends a 33-year career in public service in Mississippi by his predecessor, former Gov. Phil Bryant. Or does it?
Reeves, 45, has logged 16 years in public office himself since winning election to his first term as state treasurer in 2003. If Reeves’ fortunes track those of the other three Republicans who have held Mississippi’s governor’s office since Kirk Fordice broke through for the GOP in 1991, he’ll call the Governor’s Mansion home for two terms.
Since Mississippi voters amended the 1890 Constitution to allow gubernatorial succession in 1987, two Democrats won the Mississippi governorship – Ray Mabus in 1987 and Ronnie Musgrove in 1999. Both were one-termers and both were unseated by Republican challengers.
Fordice served two terms from 1992-2000. Haley Barbour, who defeated incumbent Democrat Musgrove, served two terms from 2004-2012. Bryant served two terms from 2012-2020. Unless Mississippi undergoes a massive political sea change, odds are the Reeves will follow that trend.
But Phil Bryant’s service to Mississippi is worthy of remembering. He leaves office with Mississippi’s economy better than it was when he took office, with progress in public education and with a business-friendly tax structure. Those accomplishments weren’t easy in the “weak governor” system dictated by the 1890 Constitution in which Bryant operated.
The authors of that onerous, racially charged document watered down gubernatorial powers in a manner designed to strengthen the Legislature by a system of freestanding boards and commissions. The practical result?
Mississippi’s political history recalls strong House speakers, strong lieutenant governors, and strong legislative committee chairmen far more than strong governors, although there have been notable exceptions. Barbour, based on his ability to impact the legislative elections, functioned as a strong governor. The rise of stricter federal-style party loyalty among legislative Republicans is also a key factor in both Barbour and Bryant’s policy successes.
Reeves, who was an exceptionally strong lieutenant governor, now faces that same 1890-era government structure. But Republicans have legislative majorities in both houses that make party loyalty an increasingly valuable political currency.
As for Bryant, while his days of state public service are likely behind him, his close ties to President Donald Trump could extend his government service to the federal level, perhaps even to a cabinet position. Critics of Bryant have consistently made the mistake of under-estimating the mechanic’s son from Moorhead. Bryant faced tough challenges inside the GOP when seeking the nomination for lieutenant governor and governor. Bryant’s battle with former state Sen. Charlie Ross – a fellow Rankin County Republican – was one of the epic battles in Mississippi politics over the last 25 years.
The 2007 Bryant-Ross race for lieutenant governor is a textbook study in why Bryant has been successful in state politics. Like the former Hinds County deputy sheriff he is, Bryant handled misjudgments of his personal and political skills the way he handled burly drunks back when he was standing behind a badge with only 160 pounds, his wits and a service revolver to back his play.
Twenty years ago, I asked Bryant about how he handled confrontation – noting his propensity to handle trouble in his days as state auditor like a good-natured cop walking a tipsy driver to the squad car.
He admitted that his law enforcement background influenced his interpersonal skills and the way he approached confrontation.
“It’s a lot easier and lot more productive to treat people the way you’d want to be treated – even if the person you’re dealing with has made a mistake or is in trouble – than it is to get in a verbal or physical confrontation,” said Bryant.
For 33 years, Bryant never strayed far from those principles in government service. That’s a rarity and it’s a big reason that Mississippi voters truly liked Bryant and trusted him.