40-year Miss. legislator makes last-minute switch to GOP

Published 5:03 pm Friday, March 2, 2007

Mississippi’s most experienced state lawmaker, Sen. Tommy Gollott of Biloxi, surprised many of his Capitol colleagues Thursday by switching from Democrat to Republican.

Gollott, 71, has been in the Legislature 40 years. He announced weeks ago that he’d seek re-election this year because he wants to continue working on Hurricane Katrina recovery. He delayed filing papers until shortly before candidates’ qualifying deadline of 5 p.m. Thursday.

He said he switched parties because the Democratic state executive committee two years ago threatened to not certify another candidate who had supported Republicans.

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“I have supported Gov. Haley Barbour because he has done an outstanding job helping us recover from the greatest natural disaster in American history,” Gollott said in a news release. “I do not intend to back away from supporting the people who have helped us the most.”

Barbour, a Republican, qualified last month to seek a second term.

Keelan Sanders, executive director of the Mississippi Democratic Party, said Gollott’s decision “is not much of a surprise.”

“After all, Sen. Gollott has voted more often with Republicans and Gov. Haley Barbour instead of supporting fellow Democrats on issues that help all Mississippians,” Sanders said in a written statement.

There was there no Democratic candidate listed in Gollott’s district, which is entirely in Harrison County. Gollott is unopposed in the Republican primary. A Mississippi Constitution Party candidate, David K. Rogers of Biloxi, filed to run in the general election.

Thursday was the last day for 2007 candidates to qualify for a long list of offices in Mississippi, from governor to county supervisor. Party primaries are Aug. 7 and the general election is Nov. 6.

Attorney General Jim Hood, who’s a Democrat, picked up a Republican opponent on the final qualifying day, Al Hopkins of Gulfport.

Insurance Commissioner George Dale, a Democrat, picked up last-minute opponents, including former state fiscal officer Gary Anderson, who’s running as a Democrat, and state Sen. Mike Chaney, who’s running as a Republican.

Former state Sen. Rob Smith of Richland qualified Thursday to run for secretary of state, and former Democratic Party chairman Rickey Cole of Ovett took himself out of the race a day after getting in it. Cole moved to the race for agriculture commissioner.

Smith, who ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer four years ago, is the fourth Democrat running for secretary of state — a seat that’s open because Democrat Eric Clark chose not to seek a fourth term.

The other Democrats in the race this year are Shawn O’Hara of Hattiesburg, Jabari Toins of Jackson and John Windsor of Jackson. The four Republicans running for secretary of state this year are Delbert Hosemann of Jackson, Gene Sills of Crystal Springs, state Rep. Mike Lott of Pearl and former Columbus Mayor Jeffrey Rupp, who’s now listed on party records as having a Starkville address.

Most of the current legislators — 52 senators and 122 House members — are seeking new four-year terms. A few are seeking other offices, while some are opting to end their time in politics and go home to spend more time with their families.

As candidates’ qualifying deadline approached, several lawmakers sat in front of their computers and checked the Democratic or Republican party Web sites to see if they had attracted opponents.

“Everybody’s checking. Every 20 or 30 minutes,” said Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville. “If they’re not checking the computer, they’re calling home to see if they have an opponent.

“It’s a somewhat stressful moment,” Hines said.

Democrat Bill Renick of Ashland, who filed qualifying papers weeks ago to run for governor, held a news conference in the Capitol rotunda Thursday to talk about the contest ahead.

“I do not apologize for being a common man of modest means. And I know that I’m running in races where there are people with millions of dollars who can do anything they want to,” Renick said, referring to Barbour, who already has more than $3 million in his campaign fund and Democratic candidate John Arthur Eaves Jr., a wealthy attorney.

“I am going to take the common man’s fight and I am going to take it all over Mississippi,” said Renick, a former state senator who served as chief of staff for Barbour’s predecessor in the governor’s office, Democrat Ronnie Musgrove.

Three of the eight current statewide officials are not running this year. Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, a Republican, is term-limited and can’t run again. Clark said he is taking a break from politics. State Auditor Phil Bryant, a Republican, is running for lieutenant governor.