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Political climate of Legislature changing

The switching of political parties in the Legislature isgrabbing much of the political speculation during this earlyelection year season. The Democrats are scrambling to hold theirbase while Republicans are gleefully rejoicing over their possibleability to control the agenda in the Mississippi Senate.

It was not too many years ago that Republicans joked that theycould hold a statewide party function in a telephone booth. Howtimes have changed as the number of incumbents jumping the Democratship continues to mount. The most notable and recent partyswitchers are Lt. Governor Amy Tuck, Sen. Terry Burton of Newtonand Rep. Herb Frierson of Poplarville.

There has been speculation in the last week that two of thisarea’s legislator’s — Rep. Jim Barnett and Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith– were ready to make the switch. Political columnists Bill Minorand Brian Berry mentioned the rumor in their weekly columns,further fueling local political speculation.

According to Sen. Hyde-Smith, the rumors of her plans toannounce a switch are just that. She says the rumors are comingfrom those people who are pushing her to join the Republican Party.The first term senator says despite the fact she has had manycontacts, she is not making a switch.

“I have no intention to switch,” she told us last week. But, sheadded, “I hope there is room in the Democratic Party forconservatives.” She qualified for re-election this past week as aDemocrat.

Rep. Jim Barnett, says he, too, is not sure where the rumors arecoming from, but it can be assumed from the same sources as Sen.Hyde-Smith.

It might be remembered that in March 1999 Barnett was called onthe carpet by the state Democrat Executive Committee. They wereangered after they found out the Brookhaven Democrat had voted in aRepublican primary. They were further angered when they found hehad penned a letter of support to his friend, then Governor GeorgeW. Bush, who was thinking of running for the Republican nominationfor President.

Barnett was decertified after the qualifying deadline by thelocal committee, but was re-certified after the state party decidedto forgive him of his indiscretions and required him to sign apledge of support.

State Democrat officials are scurrying to hold on to theirseats. Even one Senator, Rob Smith (D), Richland, has filed a billthat would require anyone who switches parties to immediatelyresign their seat and run in a special election.

At play in all of this is the ability of the Republicans for thefirst time since Reconstruction to have enough power to set theagenda in the Mississippi Senate. With 21 Senate seats giving them40 percent of the vote, Senate Republicans have within their graspthe 35 votes needed to override a gubernatorial veto or Housepassed revenue bill.

In the House, where the Republicans only have 30 of the 121seats, the Democrats have solid control. With an increasing numberof incumbents choosing not to run for re-election and an estimated40 new faces expected, next year the margin could tighten. Add tothat the power currently yielded by the Legislative Black Caucus inthe House, a new Speaker of the House next year, and we have aninteresting political power grab unfolding.

Write to Bill Jacobs at P.O. Box 551, Brookhaven, Miss.39602.