McCoy wins 2nd term as Miss. House speaker over GOP vote

Published 5:18 pm Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour won’t have the level of influence he wanted within the Mississippi Legislature during his second term.

Although the Senate will be led by a new Republican lieutenant governor, Barbour will still face a hardheaded populist Democrat as leader of the House.

Billy McCoy of Rienzi won four more years as speaker of the Mississippi House on Tuesday in a dramatic 62-60 vote that took place within the opening hours of the 2008 session and the four-year term.

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Thirteen Democrats split from McCoy and sided with all 47 Republicans to vote for Jeff Smith, a conservative Democrat from Columbus who challenged McCoy for the top leadership job.

The speaker has great influence over how public policy is created. He appoints House members to committees and chooses committee chairmen. He also assigns bills to committees for work. All of these duties can determine how much Mississippians will pay for taxes, what kind of shape the roads will be in and what kind of equipment the public schools will receive.

Although Barbour said publicly that he stayed out of the internal politics of the House, his supporters clearly wanted to oust McCoy, who butted heads with the governor last term over key issues such as cigarette taxes and education funding. Barbour’s wife, Marsha, watched the speaker’s vote Tuesday from a balcony overlooking the House chamber.

McCoy implored House members to put aside their differences and to work with the governor, the Senate and the courts to improve schools, transportation, health care, law enforcement and economic development.

“Let’s work together, do the best we can and love one another,” McCoy said.

Smith went to the podium moments later to call for reconciliation within the House. He told freshmen legislators that they had just witnessed “democracy in action.”

“I don’t care if you voted for me or against me, I want us to work together,” Smith said. “And we’ve got a speaker and I want us to work with the speaker.”

The House also re-elected J.P. Compretta, D-Bay St. Louis, to the chamber’s second-highest job as speaker pro tempore over Robert Johnson, D-Natchez.

The chamber’s leaders come from opposite ends of the state. McCoy lives near the Tennessee line in the hills of northeast Mississippi, while Compretta lost his home and his law office to the fury of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

McCoy was unanimously elected speaker four years ago after the former House leader, Democrat Tim Ford of Baldwyn, chose not to seek re-election to the chamber. Between the general election in November 2003 and lawmakers’ inauguration in January 2004, McCoy lined up bipartisan support.

Since then, McCoy has angered conservatives by opposing Barbour on issues such as Medicaid funding and sales taxes. McCoy also had serious health problems last term, suffering a series of strokes.

The House saw a bit of drama leading into Tuesday’s vote for the speakership. The chamber had to elect a temporary speaker to preside over the speaker’s vote, and two black Democrats — Ed Blackmon of Canton and Johnson — were nominated for the temporary job.

The vote on the temporary speakership was important because it foretold how the votes would fall in the McCoy-Smith contest. McCoy’s supporters backed Blackmon, and Smith’s backed Johnson.

It took three roll-call votes for Blackmon to win the temporary job. The first two votes were tied 61-61. On the third roll call, Rep. Linda Coleman, D-Mound Bayou, flipped her vote from Johnson to Blackmon and broke the tie.

Every member who voted for Blackmon for the temporary job then voted for McCoy for the four-year job, and everyone who voted for Johnson then backed Smith.

During the roll call for speaker, the only unexpected moment came when Rep. Esther Harrison, D-Columbus, first voted for Smith. She immediately corrected herself: “I’m sorry. McCoy.”

Several in the crowded chamber laughed nervously.

As he regained the gavel for a second term as speaker, McCoy was surrounded by relatives, friends and supporters. Among them was Democratic former Gov. William Winter.

“Gov. Winter has been a father to me,” said McCoy, who became a House member in 1980 — the same year Winter became governor.

All 122 House members and 52 members took their oaths of office Tuesday. Most of the new statewide elected officials, including Republican Phil Bryant, will be sworn in Thursday. Barbour’s inauguration is next Tuesday.