America's Newest Governor Gets Delayed Start
By Reed Branson, Special to Stateline
JACKSON, Miss. -- Democrat Ronnie Musgrove will be sworn in as Mississippi's new governor next Tuesday after cementing his narrow 8,000-vote popular vote plurality in November elections with an overwhelming 86 to 36 victory in the state House of Representatives this week.
Musgrove, a small-town lawyer from Batesville who has been lieutenant governor for the last four years, is a social conservative and economic liberal. He enjoyed the backing of anti-abortion groups in his campaign for governor, but managed to keep his Democratic base in line by aggressively pushing for more spending for schools.
Musgrove's elevation to the Mississippi's top office was the predictable end to a long-running political drama that began when he and former Rep. Mike Parker, his Republican opponent, fought to a near-draw in the November 2 balloting to succeed former Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice. Musgrove got 49.6 percent of the vote, Parker 48.5 percent.
The state Constitution of 1890 required the Democratically-controlled state House of Representatives to choose the winner since neither Musgrove or Parker had a majority of the popular or electoral vote. It was believed to be the first time in state history that a governor was chosen in this manner.by this method. “To the Speaker of the House, the House leadership and the 86 members who cast their votes for Ronnie Musgrove, we simply say `thank you," Musgrove said after his victory.
Musgrove, who presided over the state Senate as lieutenant governor, just last Spring angered House members by pushing for a pay raise that House budget leaders worried was too expensive. The House came out looking like the political bad guys, and Speaker Tim Ford is said to have warned Musgrove at the time: "you would not win a popularity contest over here."
The day before the House voted to break the November election deadlock, Ford joked with reporters about how accommodating Musgrove had suddenly become. "Our relationship has improved greatly in the last two months," he said.
Musgrove put off any formal transition planning while awaiting the vote. He was warned by House members not to appear dismissive of their Constitutional role.
While the delay is likely to complicate his life, Musgrove is a methodical planner and no doubt knows what he wants to do and who he wants to hire. David Cole, the head of Itawamba Community College and friend of Speaker Ford, is expected to be named the governor's chief-of-staff.
What's unclear is whether the House vote strengthened or weakened Musgrove. On one hand, he had to bow before the House and is beholden to it for his new job. But House members who were angry with him at other points may have redirected their wrath towards Parker for forcing the vote in the first place by refusing to concede the election.
Musgrove's fortunes are as likely to be governed by the economy as much as anything. And there, there reason for caution. Education will be his focus over the next four years, but he is also talking about improving health care -- limiting HMO power to dictate medical decisions -- and about revamping the state's tax structure to lure more business to the state.
The state is collecting taxes at about the rate budget writers predicted. But that is the problem. For several years, the economy has boomed beyond expectations, providing a bundle of extra cash for programs such as teacher raises and school reforms Musgrove built his career upon.
Now, though, Musgrove has promised to take teacher salaries to the southeastern average in three years, put a computer on every desk. All of that, of course, costs money.
Lawmakers may also address the constitutional provision that threw the race into the House -- a provision crafted in the post-Civil War era to keep African-Americans out of state leadership posts. But there as yet appears to be no consensus on how or whether to alter the Constitution.