Republican Speaker of the House Philip Gunn called House Democratic Leader Rep. Robert Johnson with a rare invitation: He wanted Democrats to work with Republican leadership on crafting a major policy initiative.
Gunn told Johnson that another fight with Gov. Tate Reeves looked possible over what would become a $300 million relief package for small businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and he wanted Democrats at the table early in case a veto override became necessary later.
“I’m not gonna lie, I laughed. I thought to myself, ‘This will last one or two meetings, and it’ll fizzle out and fall apart,’” Johnson told Mississippi Today. “I told the speaker, ‘If we’re going to do this, it has to be real.’ And it was. They proved me wrong. Every step of the way, every point that we thought was important that (House Republicans) hadn’t considered, they considered them.”
Last week marked one of the first sincere bipartisan efforts under the Capitol dome since January 2012, when Gunn was first elected speaker and Republicans earned a supermajority in both the House and Senate. By the end of the negotiating process, Democrats got several items added from their wish list, including a $40 million pot of relief money set aside for minority-owned businesses.
“Everyone, Republicans and Democrats, felt good walking out of that room when the deal was done,” Johnson said. “It’s the way the Legislature should work. It’s more effective when it’s not always about party.”
Republican leaders have taken extraordinary care over the past decade to strip Democrats of any semblance of influence they once held in Jackson, and Gunn led the effort to shut Democrats out of the legislative process. He offered no major committee chairmanships to Democrats. He split Democrats and Republicans on the House chamber voting board so everyone could clearly see if Republicans defected from the party line. He even took office space from Democrats.
“We pull out the roster of our team, and we pick leaders off that list,” Gunn said in a commanding 2015 Neshoba County Fair speech about the rise of the Mississippi Republican Party. “Your man, because he’s a Democrat, is not on that list.”
Much has changed since Gunn gave that speech. Then, he didn’t have a Republican governor who publicly threatened to veto Republican policy. He didn’t have a Republican governor who suggested that “people would die” because of Republican legislative action. He didn’t have a Republican governor who suggested that Republican lawmakers were ignoring the state Constitution or “trying to steal” spending authority of federal funds from the executive branch.
Now he does.
And while Republicans hold a three-fifths supermajority, they do not hold a veto proof two-thirds majority. If Reeves were to veto any bill the Legislature passes, Republican legislative leaders would need Democratic votes to override the veto. That’s why Gunn called Johnson, and that’s why Johnson and the Democratic caucus were able to score the rare win.
Lawmakers of both parties in both the House and the Senate told Mississippi Today that one thing drove the partisan sea change: the desire to defeat Reeves.
“Almost to the man and woman, everybody in the House and many in the Senate have an experience with Tate Reeves that makes them feel no desire to work with him in any way,” Johnson said. “We spent eight years with him (as lieutenant governor) laying down the law. It always had to be his way. Now we get the chance to be legislators and not be dictated to, and Democrats are at the table because of it. Mississippi is better off because Tate Reeves is no longer able to do that.”
Rep. Trey Lamar, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a top lieutenant of Gunn, acknowledged that the Democrats were brought to the table because of a possible veto. Lamar, a longtime opponent of Reeves, also said that “some of the public statements (Reeves) made about members of the Legislature” fueled the decision to reach across the aisle.
“As far as I’m concerned, I expect (Democrats) to have a seat at the table regardless of what the policy issue is,” Lamar said. “When we have input from different groups of people, oftentimes, like we saw last week, the byproduct is a better piece of legislation. I welcome that, and look forward to working with them in the future.”
Republican and Democratic leaders appear optimistic about their ability to work together moving forward. The new goodwill Gunn earned in the House is balanced with Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann’s efforts since he was elected last November to include Democrats. Hosemann offered several key Senate chairmanships to Democrats, and he’s regularly kept Democrats informed of his deliberations with the House leadership.
“Senate Democrats have achieved more in two or three months under the current leadership than we did in the entire eight years under (Reeves),” said Sen. Derrick Simmons, the Democratic leader in the Senate. “It starts with inclusion and respect for different perspectives… I’m very optimistic about it being a new day in the Mississippi Legislature.”
As Gunn predicted, Reeves did not discount the possibility of a veto of the small business relief package. Because of the bipartisan negotiation process, that small business bill appears veto-proof.
But in the weeks to come, lawmakers will consider coronavirus relief packages over more politically contentious issues like public education, health care, access to polls, and corrections. Those items have generated more disagreement between party leaders over the years.
“Until something shows itself to be different, we’re going to keep working together as a team,” Johnson said. “We talk about this being a crisis, but I think Mississippi has been in a state of crisis for at least 10 years. It’s absurd that anyone would talk about Republican versus Democrat when you’ve got the highest poverty rate and lowest income of any state in the nation. It’s not just Democrats who are affected by that. Those things cross party lines and racial lines. That’s a sentiment I think all of us share, and I hope it keeps us going.”
Adam Ganucheau is interim editor-in- chief of Mississippi Today.