Mississippi Legislators To Choose Governor Next Month

 

JACKSON, Miss -- Democrat Ronnie Musgrove appears to have a solid lock on the Mississippi governor's mansion with his narrow 49.6 to 48.5 percent popular vote victory, but Republican Mike Parker is mystifying supporters and detractors alike with his refusal to concede.

Because neither candidate won an outright majority, the election will fall to the state House of Representatives. In the past, in other statewide elections, that has only been a formality. But Parker is refusing to follow the precedent.

House Speaker Tim Ford (D-Baldwyn), whose relations have been strained at times with Musgrove and who even appeared briefly at Parker's victory party on Nov. 2, is now signaling clearly that an overwhelming majority of the 122 member House will vote for Musgrove: in part because of party loyalty and in part because Musgrove carried the popular vote.

Democrats outnumber Republicans in the House 86-33, with three conservative independents.

So when the Secretary of State certified the election results last week, many here expected that Parker would finally concede and not put House members on the spot. Instead, Parker simply issued a statement saying ``I will let our Constitutional system work, and I anticipate that the House of Representatives' vote to elect the governor will take place on January 4, 2000.''Parker at first appeared to hope that institutional antagonism in the House toward Musgrove, who presided over the state Senate as lieutenant governor for the last four years, would blossom in his direction.

Instead, the momentum swung in the opposite direction and members are becoming angry they are being forced to decide the race. Speaker Ford moved quickly to shore up his own base among Democrats who must elect him speaker on the same day, and to prevent an embarrassing knock-down battle that would attract national attention.

Next, Parker approached black lawmakers, who make up 35 of the 122 House members, about forming a rump caucus with Republicans to elect both Parker and the state's first, African American speaker. That plan went nowhere.

Parker's best hope would have been to win a majority of the state's electoral vote _ the vote for governor within each House district. But that was a tie, 61-61, and there is little he can point to claim a legitimate piece of the office.

"I don't know who's giving him advice," said state Rep. Steve Holland, D-Tupelo, a long-time friend of Parker's who says Musgrove has more than 75 votes.

Holland, who has known Parker from their business ties (both are morticians), had high praise for Parker during the election. Now, he says, it's over and Parker won't accept it.

I cannot for the life of me see what Mr. Parker is going to benefit from this. In fact, I think it's going to be to his detriment. The people of Mississippi want to know who their governor is.''

Republicans are starting to agree. Gov. Kirk Fordice told one newspaper that the person with the most votes should win, as did former Republican lieutenant governor Eddie Briggs. Other Republicans say they worry the party is suffering for Parker's refusal to concede.

After all, the last time this happened in the South, Georgia Democrats elected Lester Maddox in 1967 using a similar post-Reconstruction provision designed originally to protect against the potential of a black voting majority. (Today, Mississippi officials say Vermont is the only other state they can find with a similar majority requirement).

Parker confirmed he has spoken with U.S. Senate Majority Trent Lott, R-Miss), the titular head of the party which was rocked by losses on election day, but Parker insists the decision is his own.

Meanwhile, Musgrove's transition is officially on hold, and he is being cautious not to appear to overly confident in a manner that would miff House members. The state's $60,000 transition budget remains in the bank. An entire floor in a state office building near the capitol, complete with desks and telephone lines for transition, remains vacant.

Of all people, though, Musgrove may be hampered least by the delay. As lieutenant governor, he chairs the legislative budget committee and is as active as anyone in crafting budget recommendations..

But he will be elected on Jan. 4, inaugurated a week later and then immediately plunge into his first, and perhaps most important, legislative session. So Musgrove and his staff will nevertheless have to scramble to formally build an administration and launch his first-year agenda, much less plan an inauguration and festivities.

 
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