BOBBY HARRISON: McCoy v. Smith discussed in a speaker’s race

Somehow, more than two years from the next statewide general election, a speaker’s race – at least talk about a speaker’s race – has broken out.

In recent days, on state political web sites, such as the Magnolia Report, there has been talk of a speaker’s race between incumbent Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, and Rep. Jeff Smith, D-Columbus. Other media outlets also have thrown the issue out for discussion.

No doubt, McCoy’s first-term as speaker has been a rocky one. There have been his well publicized battles with Republican Gov. Haley Barbour. McCoy has advocated full funding of education over Barbour’s opposition and McCoy, like a majority of legislative Democrats and Republicans, changed their position and successfully opposed Barbour’s proposal to remove 65,000 elderly and disabled from the Medicaid rolls.

Then there was the fight over changes to the civil justice system to provide businesses and health care providers more lawsuit protection. McCoy opposed the changes going as far as Barbour wanted and eventually achieved.

And, of course, there was the life-threatening illness and series of strokes that McCoy suffered in the summer of 2004 that have slowed the once physically active Prentiss County farmer.

In a recent interview, McCoy made no commitment about his future, but sounded like a politician contemplating running for another term in 2007.

“My Daddy taught me a lot of things, but he did not teach me how to quit,” said McCoy, age 63, who stressed he was not ruling anything out at this point.

Smith, though a Democrat, would be considered at this time the Republican candidate for the post of speaker, which is by general consensus one of the three most powerful positions in state politics.

Smith, a Columbus attorney and four-term legislator, has been a consistent vote for Republican Gov. Haley Barbour on most issues. He was a primary advocate of Barbour’s proposed changes to the civil justice system and was an opponent of the proposed cigarette tax hike, which Barbour fought successfully to defeat.

Perhaps, the most telling vote of Smith’s loyalty to the governor was the fact that he was one of 15 members of the 122-member House to not vote for the House bill that came closer to fully funding public education than any proposal considered during the 2005 session. Smith voted present.

Smith, though differing with McCoy on many issues, worked closely with McCoy when McCoy chaired the House Ways and Means Committee. Because of his intellect and amiable style, Smith, complete with his distinctive mustache, has been considered a potential speaker for some time.

In politics, it probably is wise to never say never, but it is difficult to fathom a scenario where Smith or anyone else could unseat McCoy in the middle of the current term. Under almost every plausible scenario, it would take a super majority – probably two-thirds vote – to unseat a speaker in the middle of a term, and I am not sure at the present time Smith or anyone else could muster a majority vote to replace McCoy.

So for all practical purposes, I assume when people talk about a speaker’s race they are talking about after the November 2007 when House members will have to stand for re-election again.

House politics, quickly and at times not so subtly, has evolved. McCoy, who it could be arguedhas played a pivotal role on more pieces of major legislation than any lawmaker over the past three decades, was elected speaker in 2004 by quickly lining up support from both Republicans and Democrats.

In 2008, look for partisan politics to play a much bigger factor in the election of the speaker, and to that end, the November 2007 elections will be crucial. If the House’s political makeup does not dramatically change, McCoy, should he run again, would be the favorite to serve another term as speaker. If Republicans gain a majority, no doubt, the next speaker will be a Republican. If the Republicans gain modest ground, but also are buoyed by the elections of Democrats of Smith’s ilk, then Jeff Smith could very well be the next speaker.

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