Bryant appointments could shape state future
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant readily acknowledges he’s in office today partly because he got a hand up from his mentor, Republican former Gov. Kirk Fordice.
Now, Bryant could be shaping the state’s political future by reaching down and helping other politicians advance their careers.
Bryant was elected as a Republican state representative from Rankin County in 1991, when Democrats held a wide majority in the 122-member Mississippi House. That year was also the beginning of a Republican wave in Mississippi as Fordice, a blunt-spoken Vicksburg contractor, defeated Democratic Gov. Ray Mabus to become the state’s first GOP governor since Reconstruction.
Fordice took a liking to Bryant, a former deputy sheriff and a fellow true believer in former President Ronald Reagan.
Democrat Steve Patterson resigned as state auditor in 1996 after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of using a false affidavit to buy a car tag. Fordice plucked Bryant from the House and appointed him auditor that October, starting Bryant on a career in statewide offices that has spanned nearly 22 years and will top out at more than 23 years by January 2020, when he ends his second term as governor.
Bryant was elected auditor in 1999 and 2003, lieutenant governor in 2007 and governor in 2011 and 2015.
In the past few months, Bryant has appointed three people into statewide offices when fellow Republicans stepped down. All three will attempt to hold onto their jobs.
In March, Bryant announced that he had chosen the second-term state agriculture commissioner, Cindy Hyde-Smith, to succeed longtime U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran when the 80-year-old lawmaker retired amid health concerns in early April. She faces three challengers in a nonpartisan special election in November, and the winner will serve the rest of the six-year term that ends in January 2021.
Bryant pulled third-term state Rep. Andy Gipson from the state House and made him agriculture commissioner. Gipson has embraced the role, wearing a cowboy hat and touring farms and other ag operations with his family.
On Friday, Bryant named attorney Shad White to succeed state Auditor Stacey Pickering, who is leaving the $90,000-a-year job July 16 to begin a $122,500-a-year job as director of the Mississippi Veterans Affairs Board. White has never held public office but is known in state political circles. The one-time Rhodes scholar worked as a policy adviser for then-Lt. Gov. Bryant in 2011. White has worked in several Republican campaigns, including for Pickering and Bryant.
Bryant announced the new auditor in the same spot in the Governor’s Mansion where Fordice announced his appointment of Bryant a generation earlier. Bryant’s spokesman even shared a photo showing the same sofa and painting remain in place.
Bryant said the announcement in 1996 was “quite a moment” for him and his wife, Deborah.
“I’m here to repeat that today,” he added, before calling White and his wife, Rina, into the room.
At 32, White will be the youngest of Mississippi’s current statewide officials, but he won’t be the youngest ever to hold statewide office. Current Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves was 29 when he won his first of two terms as state treasurer in 2003.
Republicans hold a majority in both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature and seven of the eight statewide elected positions in state government. They have held both U.S. Senate seats since January 1989.
If Hyde-Smith, Gipson and White win election to their appointed jobs and even if they move onto other offices, they could be the longest-lasting part of Bryant’s legacy.
Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter at EWagsterPettus.