Philip Gunn took Tate Reeves to political wood shed last week over virus money

Published 10:12 pm Sunday, May 10, 2020

On the night Tate Reeves won the 2019 governor’s race, most of the state’s top Republican elected officials stood to the side of the stage, close to the cameras, at the new governor’s victory party in downtown Jackson.

As the GOP officials listened to Reeves’s speech and scoped out reporters for live interviews, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, who was a few hours from being elected to his third straight term as speaker, stood alone and quiet in the back of the room.

That night, the state’s political landscape changed dramatically: Reeves, the two-term lieutenant governor who sparred often with Gunn at the Capitol, was moving into the less powerful governor’s office; and Delbert Hosemann, the three-term secretary of state, was elected lieutenant governor.

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Gunn, standing in the back of the room that night, must have known he’d soon have a shot at becoming the most powerful politician in Mississippi. In the past week, during the historic power struggle between the executive and legislative branches of government, he did it.

For weeks, Reeves insisted he had sole spending authority over the $1.25 billion in coronavirus relief funds the state of Mississippi had received from the federal government. But Gunn and Hosemann disagreed and abruptly called lawmakers back to Jackson on May 1 to ensure that they, not Reeves, would have that authority.

In response, Reeves threatened to veto the bill lawmakers almost unanimously passed and sue the Legislature. Gunn bowed up to those threats in the most public way — the first time since Republicans gained complete control of state government in 2012 that a GOP legislative leader stood up to a GOP governor so forcefully.

On May 1, Gunn lambasted Reeves in a press conference. Gunn, a litigator for a Ridgeland law firm, might as well have been delivering the closing argument in a courtroom, taking Reeves’ claims and citing previous court rulings and even years-earlier statements from Reeves himself to prove why they were wrong.

Gunn turned the moment into a constitutional lesson and even used one of Reeves’ go-to campaign lines about government overreach against him.

“The governor says that by letting him spend the money, he can get it where it needs to go more quickly,” Gunn said at the May 1 press conference. “That makes for a good sound bite, but what voice does that give to our citizens in the decision making process?… This is the type of mentality that says the government knows better than you how to spend your money.”

That press conference did little to subdue Reeves, who subsequently insisted that the Legislature was violating the state Constitution, that lawmakers “were trying to steal the money” from him, and that “people will die” because of the legislative intervention in the spending process.

So Gunn, the notoriously shrewd political navigator, tightened his gloves. On May 4, he sent a blistering seven-page letter to Reeves, breaking down why the governor was wrong about 12 separate claims he had publicly made. Gunn, who wrote every word of the letter himself, sources close to the speaker told Mississippi Today, pointedly questioned the governor’s motivations.

“In your comments Friday, you portrayed legislators as thieves and killers,” Gunn wrote to Reeves in the May 4 letter that was quickly leaked to Mississippi Today by lawmakers. “You said we ‘stole the money’ and people would die. Such cheap theatrics and false personal insults were beneath the dignity of your office.”

Gunn’s letter continued: “We request that you stop attempting to sensationalize this situation and work with the Legislature to solve the issues before us. This is the spirit in which our government has worked since 1817 and it shouldn’t stop today. We invite you to put aside an all out media war with the legislative branch and to work with us to provide the checks and balances that the spending of $1.25 billion should require.”

After he received the letter, Reeves stopped criticizing the Legislature. Two days later, Reeves, knowing he was in a corner, invited Gunn and Hosemann to the Governor’s Mansion to discuss a truce — one that would allow Reeves to avoid the embarrassment of a historic and near certain veto override in his first 120 days in office and an intra-party legal battle.

But Gunn wasn’t quite finished asserting his power.

On May 7, Gunn and Hosemann sat at Reeves’ daily press briefing to announce the agreement they had reached. Reeves kicked off the presser, speaking broadly about “ongoing conversations” regarding how the three would work together in coming days. Reeves declined to concede that he had lost the fight and would not have the spending authority.

Hosemann went next, softly acknowledging that legislative leadership would bring Reeves to the table to discuss how they should spend the federal funds. But Hosemann left ambiguity about the agreement the three had reached and who, exactly, would get the spending authority.

Gunn went last and, true to his blunt form in the days before, left absolutely no doubt about how this chapter of Mississippi political history would end: Reeves would have no spending authority, and the legislative leadership had gotten exactly what they wanted all along.

“The conclusion that we’ve reached is the Legislature will appropriate those dollars while working in conjunction with the governor administering those dollars,” Gunn said.

Gunn couldn’t have won the fight without Hosemann, who deserves credit. The two worked closely together as they plotted how to shut out the governor through legislation, and how they could override a veto or win a potential lawsuit.

But several times, the lieutenant governor stopped short of criticizing the governor’s position and left uncertainty about the decisions that were made. Additionally, several Republican senators who have remained close with Reeves made it impossible for Hosemann to guarantee unanimous support for the legislative leaders’ maneuvering.

After the May 7 press conference, Mississippi Today reporter Bobby Harrison stopped Gunn in the hallway. “Mr. Speaker, that letter,” Harrison said with a smile.

The speaker’s staffers laughed, but Gunn, with a straight face, replied: “I had no intention of that letter being made public.”

Whether true or not, Gunn’s letter — and his forceful actions during the struggle — showed Mississippians in no uncertain terms who holds the most power in this new era of state politics.

Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today’s interim editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest.

This analysis article was originally published by Mississippi Today: