Rep. Johnson makes political waves

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 6, 2008

JACKSON — In a move that has the Mississippi political pundits gasping for air, Rep. Robert Johnson may shift his support away from the Black Caucus, at least in one regard.

Rep. Jeff Smith (D, Columbus), who is white, announced that Natchez native, Johnson (D, Natchez), who is black, will be his nominee for temporary speaker of the House when the House convenes this week.

If Johnson were to win the seat, he would preside over several House matters, including the election of the House speaker. When the speaker is elected, the interim officer will step down. Smith is currently battling speaker Billy McCoy for the House’s top job. The Black Caucus supports McCoy.

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In October, McCoy published a list of 62 state representatives who supported his run for speaker. Candidates need a majority of the vote — which in the House is 62 — to win the position. Johnson’s name, as well as 35 other Black Caucus members, was on McCoy’s list.

The announcement about Johnson’s nomination has some questioning whether the Legislative Black Caucus is as unified as they once appeared to be.

“This represents the first crack, apparent to the public, in the previously-thought solidarity of the Black Caucus,” said John C. Stennis Institute of Government Director Marty Wiseman. “It raises major questions to the solidarity of the Black Caucus.”

Johnson’s support of Smith will leave the Black Caucus in the difficult situation of voting against one of their own or voting against McCoy — the candidate they have publicly supported thus far in the race.

Natchez Mayor and former Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Phillip West said he has spoken with Johnson about the matter.

“Johnson feels what he is contemplating will be best for Natchez and Southwest Mississippi,” he said.

The situation leaves Natchez and Southwest Mississippi in political limbo. If Smith loses, will McCoy harbor any ill will toward the area Johnson represents? West said he thinks McCoy would not.

“McCoy is a friend of mine and either way, our relationship would not change,” he said. “In the long term, if McCoy wins, he will be committed to the City of Natchez.”

Rep. Sam Mims (R, McComb) said having Johnson in the temporary speaker position would only help Southwest Mississippi and Natchez. Mims, who has publicly supported Smith, said he was confident his candidate has the 62 votes needed to win the seat.

“Johnson is playing a large role in those 62 votes,” Mims said.

“With his willingness to support Smith publicly, we will have enough votes to elect Smith to speaker.”

Wiseman said Johnson’s departure from the Black Caucus could signal to those who are on the fence that they may want to question their place with the McCoy camp.

“If the caucus holds and McCoy wins, it will minimize the damage done,” Wiseman said.

“But if it becomes evident that the solidarity of the caucus can be broken, it will change the formula.”

Johnson could not be reached for comment.