Perhaps, no greater surprise occurred during the party primary elections on Aug. 6 than the defeat of two members of the Mississippi House leadership – Pro Tem Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, and Ways and Means Chair Jeff Smith, R-Columbus.
Both were not only power brokers in the state House, but also veteran legislators who had run multiple times for re-election with token or no opposition.
The defeat of Smith, in particular, is surprising. He not only has been one of the most powerful members of the Legislature as chair of one of the four so-called money committees, but also in a sense is a historic figure in Mississippi politics. He was one of two contestants in what most likely will be the last, at least for a long time, speaker’s election that was fought out on the House floor in full view of everyone.
In the 2008 session, Smith lost the speakership to then-incumbent Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, by a 63-61 margin in a dramatic and tense floor vote. McCoy and Smith were part of an era where nearly all House members where Democrats and their races for speaker were just about always played out in full view of the state. Since the Republicans have gained firm control of the House, they employ more of a federal model in electing the presiding officer.
Soon after the November 2011 election when the Republicans garnered control of the House for the first time since the 1800s, they met behind closed door to select among four Republican candidates for speaker. The understanding of the Republican caucus members was that the winner of that secret vote would have their unanimous support when the speaker was elected during the first day of the 2012 session.
That winner was Philip Gunn of Clinton. The Democrats, in the minority, did not even offer a candidate to run against Gunn. With all the Republicans committed to voting for Gunn, the Democrats did not have the votes.
In 2008, all the Republicans and 13 of the Democrats voted for Smith to make the speaker’s race close. By contrast, it would be unthinkable at this time to think Republicans, who are likely to be a majority for the foreseeable future, would vote for a Democrat for speaker. Smith, was in a sense, a bridge candidate for Republicans.
Smith was still a Democrat in 2008, but he voted more conservatively than most Republicans. Republicans thought with Smith they had a candidate they could support based on his voting records and who could wrangle some Democrats – just enough to win – away from McCoy, who was a pain in the side of Republican Gov. Haley Barbour. They almost were right.
Interestingly, Smith was viewed as one of McCoy’s top lieutenants when McCoy served as chair of the Ways and Means Committee before he was elected speaker. And many believed that when McCoy first was elected speaker in 2004 that he would appoint Smith as Ways and Means chair. But instead McCoy appointed Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, to the coveted post making him the first African American to chair one of the Legislature’s four money committees. In the process, McCoy created an opponent in Smith.
Four years later Smith barely missed his chance for revenge. On that dramatic day, there were two tie votes in the selection of the temporary speaker who would preside over the election of the speaker. Two African Americans – Ed Blackmon of Canton, representing McCoy, and Robert Johnson, representing Smith – were in the running for temporary speaker. The election was seen as a precursor of how the vote for speaker would go.
After the second tie vote for the office of temporary speaker, McCoy supporter David Norquist, D-Cleveland, got up from his desk to speak with Smith. They were leaving the House chamber together when the third vote started, and Rep. Linda Coleman, D-Mound Bayou, who had previously voted for Johnson, switched her vote to Blackmon – in other words for McCoy. They stopped dead in their tracks. Coleman’s switch meant McCoy had won.
Was Norquist getting ready to make a deal with Smith to leave McCoy? We may never know.
Smith will be forever remembered in the halls of the Capitol for his handlebar mustache, immaculate dress, often a seersucker suit after Easter, and the spats he wore covering his shoes.
And he will be remembered for his narrow loss in the 2008 race for Mississippi House speaker.
It is likely that before the new legislative terms begins in January, Republicans, who almost assuredly will retain their sizable majority in the November general election, will again meet behind closed doors to select Gunn as their choice for speaker. He then most likely will be elected without opposition on the opening day of the new term in January.
After that, among his primary tasks will be finding a new Ways and Means chair to replace Jeff Smith and a new pro tem to replace Greg Snowden.
This column was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture. Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.