Bobby Harrison

BOBBY HARRISON

When Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice appointed state Rep. Phil Bryant, a Rankin County Republican, to the open seat of state auditor in 1996, he essentially said Bryant was a nicer version of himself.

Bryant, collegial and folksy, contrasted with Fordice who was known for his gruffness and quick temper, though both shared the same unabashedly conservative principles and loyalty to the Republican Party.

Fordice, an instinctual politician, recognized the statewide potential of the little-known Rankin County Republican. He was right.

Bryant has run for statewide office five times. He has never lost a statewide contest, though he did lose his first election in the late 1980s for Rankin County supervisor.

Bryant, whose tenure as governor is coming to an end Tuesday, has said his name will never appear on the ballot again. He cannot run for governor again because of term limits. He could run for federal office or even for a down ticket state office. J.P.Coleman served in the state House after his term as governor ended in 1960.

Bryant got his political start in the same House, being elected in 1991 and serving until 1996 when appointed auditor by Fordice. Bryant was one of the leaders of the Republican minority and in 1996 tried to amend a bill dealing with banking issues to cut the state income tax. Bryant argued on the House floor that while the bill dealt with banking issues, it had the income tax legal code section, making his amendment proper. After contemplating the issue for a day, House Speaker Tim Ford, D-Baldwyn, ruled that while the code section was in the bill, the issue of a tax cut was not germane to banking legislation.

At any rate, such bold efforts proved to Fordice that Bryant had the tenacity to succeed on the statewide level. And he did. He won two elections to the posts of auditor and governor and one for the position of lieutenant governor.

“I thought he was someone who would move on up the political ladder,” said Rep. Tom Weathersby, R-Florence, who was elected to the House the same year as Bryant from the other end of Rankin County. “He truly voted how he believed and he was determined to work to kill bills he opposed and pass bills he supported.”

Bryant, a former Hinds County deputy from a blue collar family, called the end of his tenure “bittersweet,” though he said he is excited about the Republican leadership taking control of state government and of the potential of Mississippi.

As lieutenant governor, Bryant saw then-Gov. Haley Barbour leave office after two terms under a cloud of controversy after Barbour’s decision to grant pardons to more than 200 convicted felons, including four who had been convicted of murder charges. The pardons gained national attention.

Early in his gubernatorial tenure, Bryant announced that he would not be granting any pardons unless in rare circumstances, such as clear evidence someone was wrongly convicted. And it appears as he prepares to leave office that he is keeping that commitment. Bryant also remains popular as he leaves office. The latest poll from Morning Consult, shows Bryant with a 55 percent approval rating compared to 26 percent disapproval rating.

Still, Bryant will leave office under at least some controversy – regarding prisoners. As his tenure as governor winds up, the state prison system has been on lockdown because of violent episodes throughout much of the system in recent days resulting in at least five deaths.

Bryant said recently the blame for the violence and deaths rests solely with the inmates. Still, it is true that two commissioners appointed by Bryant during his tenure to oversee the Department of Corrections warned legislators that such violence and carnage were possible if more money was not appropriated to recruit enough prison guards and to put in place other safeguards.

Bryant leaves office able to brag about close to $1 billion in reserve funds in state coffers, able to tout cuts to various state programs and able to tout about 50 tax cuts, including the largest in state history, passed in 2016. Tax cuts passed during Bryant’s tenure – when fully phased in – will total more than $700 million annually.

The deaths and carnage are brutal reminders of a constant – that Mississippi is a poor state with lots of needs. Some would argue that more state spending could solve some of those problems. That, of course, is an ongoing debate – the proper level to fund government.

Bryant leaves office proud of his accomplishments, saying the state is in the best fiscal and economic shape perhaps in history.

Of the prisoners, Rep. Willie Bailey, D-Greenville, said that, if “we are going to house them, then we are responsible for them.”

And new Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said of the prison conditions, “We should not as a society – we are a Christian community – we don’t treat people like that.”

The debates concerning state government spending levels will continue, but without Bryant as an official participant.

MISSISSIPPI TODAY, a nonprofit news organization, produces this column. BOBBY HARRISON is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter and was a longtime Capitol reporter for the Daily Journal. Readers can contact him at (601) 946-9931 or BHarrison@mississippitoday.org.

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