Miss. Speaker candidate baffled at AG Hood's re-election

Jessica M. Karmasek Nov. 16, 2011, 9:33am


JACKSON, Miss. (Legal Newsline) - Mississippi's Republican candidate for House speaker says he can't figure out why voters re-elected state Attorney General Jim Hood to a third term.

Though state Rep. Philip Gunn admitted he was mostly focused on his own re-election and the race to become the state's next House speaker, he said he doesn't know where the state GOP and Hood's opponent, Steve Simpson, went wrong.

Simpson -- a former public service commissioner, circuit judge and assistant district attorney -- was a "quality candidate," he said.

"He had a resume that was very good," Gunn said. "Jim Hood just was able to get his voters out and was able to prevail."

Hood is now the only Democrat to hold a major statewide office in Mississippi.

Following last week's elections, Republicans are in control of both houses of the state Legislature and have retained control of the Governor's Office. Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant was elected to succeed Gov. Haley Barbour.

Gunn, himself, was re-elected, defeating Jim Culberson, a retired employee of the Mississippi Department of Transportation. Gunn ran unopposed in the state's August primary.

So how did Hood hang on to his position as the state's top lawyer?

"I really don't know what people were thinking," Gunn said. "I don't know why they would vote for him, to be honest."

Gunn, who was selected as the GOP's preferred candidate for House speaker on Monday, said some of it probably comes down to location.

"Jim Hood has been a very popular candidate in the state," he admitted. In 2007, Hood easily defeated Republican Al Hopkins.

"But you have to know the dynamics," Gunn said.

Northeast Mississippi traditionally has been a Democratic stronghold, he explained.

"And that's kind of his home base," Gunn said. "He has a lot of popularity there. The Northwest also is a solid Democratic base.

"Basically, in northern Mississippi he has home-field advantage."

Gunn, a defense attorney at the Jackson law firm of Wells, Marble and Hurst, has long been critical of Hood and his office -- most recently, its handling of legal settlement monies.

Days before the Nov. 8 election, Hood announced his office reached settlements with three pharmaceutical manufacturers, putting millions in the state's coffers.

Hours later, Barbour, who has regularly been at odds with Hood, sent a letter to joint legislative committee members saying September's revenue estimate included $20 million in so-called "revenue" from the settlement of such cases.

The state, he warned lawmakers, would only receive a fraction of those funds -- a significant portion still is owed to the federal government -- and to keep that mind in looking at the state's budget.

Hood's characterization of the settlement monies had some lawmakers, including Gunn, again questioning whether legislative action is needed to take away his authority to appropriate such revenue.

Gunn has argued that the attorney general is not elected to decide how taxpayer money is to be spent. That, he has said, is a job for the Legislature.

That is why Gunn, who has served in the House for nearly eight years, wants to see an attorney general "sunshine law" passed in Mississippi.

Such legislation would also bar the Attorney General's Office from hiring outside attorneys -- especially those with ties to Hood's office -- without legislative approval.

Previous attempts to pass such legislation have been blocked because of the House's Democratic control.

Now, it could have a chance of surviving.

But whether any action will be taken this upcoming session, on the measure or any tort reforms, Gunn said he is unsure -- that is, even with the GOP's hold on the House and the likelihood he will be speaker.

The House won't choose its new speaker until it meets in January.

If Gunn is selected, it will be the first time in nearly 140 years that the post has been held by a Republican.

Outgoing House Speaker Billy McCoy, a Democrat, did not seek re-election this year.

The position of House speaker is a powerful one. He is responsible for naming committee chairmen and for designating the chamber's priorities.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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