Sid Salter Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 9, 2009

Sid Salter

Salter: Lt. Gov. Bryant will face balancing act in next two years

While Democrats control the Mississippi House by a healthy 74-to-48-member margin and the Senate by a tighter 27-to-25 count, Republicans remain tough customers in the legislative process because of two factors – Gov. Haley Barbour and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant.

Barbour and Bryant, both Republicans, exert enormous pressure on the legislative process for the GOP and provide significant political counterweights to the Democratic majority in both chambers at the state Capitol.

A former Republican National Committee chairman, Barbour brings superior political skills and a reputation for demanding strict party discipline and loyalty to his job as governor. Hence, Republican legislators and key conservative Democrats who frequently vote with them rarely buck Barbour on major policy issues.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

But in his sophomore year as the leader of the state Senate and as the presumed heir apparent to Barbour’s leadership of the state GOP, Bryant is beginning to assert himself in the Senate and enforce some discipline and loyalty of his own.

While still maintaining an extremely cordial public relationship with the Barbour administration, it’s undeniable that Bryant faces the delicate task of slowly beginning to cut Barbour loose and push his own political agenda in the Senate if he is to seize the mantle of leadership in time to make an expected 2011 bid to succeed Barbour as governor.

It’s a delicate and complicated political dance. Cut Barbour loose too early or with a sufficient lack of grace and tact and run the risk of turning the popular, term-limited governor from a lame duck into a mean mallard.

Cut Barbour loose too late and run the risk of looking like an acolyte who lacks the power to govern without his blessings.

For Bryant, the stakes could not be higher over the next two years. For a 2011 governor’s race, Bryant will need to be committed to a full-bore campaign by 2010.

Bryant is not the only Republican who could make a credible campaign for governor. State Treasurer Tate Reeves and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann are both considered possible contenders. Gulf Coast businessman Dave Dennis is also frequently mentioned as a possible candidate.

On the Democratic side, there are also several strong names floating around, including Attorney General Jim Hood, former attorney general Mike Moore, current state Democratic chairman Jamie Franks and a handful of lesser-known potential candidates.

To be sure, Bryant is the current lead dog in the gubernatorial speculation race. But a lot can change over the next 18 to 24 months.

With a tax hike on the table this session and other legislation important to Barbour’s core constituency on the Republican right, Bryant will draw increasing scrutiny from within his own party over that period – perhaps as much or more from fellow GOPers than from the Democrats.

Democrats who see Bryant as a more pragmatic, easier-to-compromise Republican than Barbour will be seeking to reiterate those beliefs with tangible policy concessions in negotiations with him over the next two years.

They’ll be looking to see if he bears Barbour’s political water or his own. But Republicans will be looking at just the opposite.

The conservative wing of the Mississippi GOP will be looking to see if Bryant holds the line on taxing and spending and whether he’s too eager to compromise with the Democratic majority in the House.

That political reality virtually guarantees that Bryant will be a tough negotiator on the amount of the cigarette tax increase and in trying to keep his pledge to offset that tax hike with a corresponding tax cut.

For Bryant, Barbour and the Democratic majority, the economy may prove the spoiler. In this economy, the prospects of cutting any state taxes appear at best slim at a time when blocking a cigarette tax hike looks to be impossible.

(Sid Salter is Perspective Editor at the Clarion-Ledger. Contact him at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail Visit his blog at