Veteran lawmakers enjoy greater influence at Miss. Capitol

Published 3:26 pm Monday, June 2, 2008

JACKSON (AP) —Political fortunes rise and fall at the Mississippi Capitol, and some veteran lawmakers from both ends of the philosophical spectrum are enjoying expanded power in this new four-year term.

Republican Rep. Greg Snowden of Meridian has become a leader among conservatives, while Democratic Rep. Tyrone Ellis of Starkville is exerting influence as the first-ever majority leader of the Mississippi House.

Ellis was hand-picked for the job by House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, after McCoy survived a tough fight in January for re-election as presiding officer in the 122-member chamber.

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As one of McCoy’s lieutenants, Ellis takes part in closed-door strategy sessions and is responsible for counting heads before votes are taken on volatile issues. When McCoy holds news conferences, he often surrounds himself with some of his closest advisers, including Ellis.

The House started this year with 75 Democrats and 47 Republicans. But with the recent switch of Rep. Sidney Bondurant of Grenada from D to R, the balance is now 74-48.

The House of Representatives has long been divided into three unofficial categories. There are now 37 black Democrats; 37 “rural white Democrats,” although a couple are actually “urban” white Democrats; and 48 Republicans, all of whom are white. Despite attempts by a couple of promising candidates in 2007, there are no black Republicans in the Mississippi Legislature.

Historical divisions of geography often supersede considerations of race and party. Delta versus hills. North versus south. Everyone else versus metro Jackson — and sometimes the metro Jackson delegation split amongst itself.

One of the first rules about Mississippi Democrats is that they’re a tough group to unify. On issues such as abortion and voter identification, many of the Democrats are just as likely as the Republicans to vote the conservative line.

All of these push-and-pull divisions in the House give Ellis a challenging job as he tries to make the Democrats work as a team.

Ellis has been in the Legislature nearly three decades, and he often draws on his experience as a minister to call on compassion for the needy.

During a special session debate last week, Ellis urged the House to embrace a tobacco tax to help pay for Medicaid and to reject Republican Gov. Haley Barbour’s plan that would restructure hospital taxes. Ellis emphasized that Barbour cannot run again in 2011, but he said most lawmakers probably will.

“This will come back to haunt you in the election year like you would not believe,” he said. “If you sit and vote for a hospital tax and you’re going to tax the sick and the poor, shame on you. Shame on you.”

Snowden, an attorney, has been in House for nearly a decade and has steadily risen in stature among his conservative colleagues. He helps formulate Republicans’ strategies for dealing with the budget and other issues.

Snowden often asks the kinds of questions that help lawmakers and spectators grasp the development of complex issues, and he doesn’t hesitate to point out — often correctly — what he believes will happen with any particular bill.

In February, the House passed a bill to put an extra $1 tax on every pack of cigarettes. Administrators of several health care facilities watched the debate from the House balconies, in hopes of getting the tobacco tax as a way to head off discussion of a hospital tax for Medicaid.

“To my friends in the gallery, this bill has no chance. It has zero chance in the Senate,” Snowden said.

Turns out, he was right.