/Long on a limb regarding state flag, Gunn waited for ‘perfect storm’ to furl the banner for good

Long on a limb regarding state flag, Gunn waited for ‘perfect storm’ to furl the banner for good

Many Mississippians felt that Philip Gunn, R.Clinton, House Speaker, was the most hated politician of all. Gunn had publicly stated that he would support changing the state flag. This flag is the last to display the controversial Confederate battle emblem. Five years later, Gunn still serves as House Speaker in his first year of his third term. The historic legislation was passed by the House last weekend and the flag has been taken down. Rep. Hank Zuber (R-Ocean Springs) said, “He was out there alone (in 2015).” “There was a feeling that it would take a long time to change it. And through his leadership, you can see where we are now.” The Legislature voted to change the flag last Saturday. Delbert Hosemann was the Senate’s presider. He had stated previously that the flag should be changed only by the people and not the lawmakers. Hosemann stated, “It was just a matter of time.” “You know, people began talking about it several weeks ago and the momentum…built up until we had 71 per cent of the Senate vote in favor of this. This is a huge vote, people from all over Mississippi have voted for it. It wasn’t just a Democrat initiative… it was bipartisan. It was just time.” Gunn was the one who initiated the change in the flag. He had for many years spoken and acted against the will of many Mississippians, including most of his Republican caucus. Few other Mississippi Republicans supported changing the flag over the years. U.S Sens. were the most prominent Republican politicians to support changing the flag, since Gunn. Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran were the most prominent Republican politicians to support changing the flag since Gunn, but they only had the power to offer their opinions as federal officials. They did not have any direct influence on the state’s law. Gunn, however, was the leader of the state House. Gunn said that he was more concerned with doing the right thing than worrying about political consequences. Gunn said that he was not motivated by any political agenda. It was evident from the beginning that Gunn, a Baptist Deacon, was influenced primarily by his understanding of Christianity. After the vote, Gunn said that he believed what he did today was in honor of God. He cited Bible verses that require people to love their neighbor and not offend them. Gunn declared his support for the flag being changed shortly after nine African Americans were killed by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. Despite Gunn’s longstanding presence in Mississippi, Republicans increased their numbers and Gunn was re-elected as Speaker without opposition from the caucus. He was re-elected as speaker for a third time in January without Republican opposition. Gunn’s support of changing the flag did not seem to have eroded his support from his House Republican caucus. Rep. Mac Huddleston (R-Pontotoc) said, “You always worry that people will step out on something controversial calling to change.” “But we (in Republican caucus), never questioned his leadership.” However, since 2015, Gunn’s personal position has been criticized by the Republican caucus. The 2017 session saw a large majority of Republican House members willing to punish state public universities for refusing to fly the banner. William Shirley (R-Quitman), offered several amendments that would prevent public universities receiving state benefits if they did not fly the flag. All eight public universities had by then permanently draped the flag. Shirley first presented the amendment. It passed narrowly by 57 to 56 margins, with most of the Republicans in the chamber voting against the speaker’s wishes. The amendments were defeated due to the votes of a few Republicans and almost all of the Democrats in the chamber voting against them. Gunn stated to reporters that after the 2017 vote, it was clear that the vast majority of Republican legislators opposed changing the flag. Gunn stated that any change would need to be driven by an extreme circumstance. Gunn was aware that this summer, in the midst an international pandemic and nationwide protests over racial injustice and serious debate about Confederate imagery, extreme circumstances might have occurred. Gunn was seated in the corner of the House’s ornate chamber, talking to Robert Johnson, D.Natchez, in early June, a week before the large Jackson protest that renewed the state flag debate. The two leaders were not bothered by anyone, despite the fact that their masks partially obscured their faces, Gunn could be seen smiling from the corner of the ornate House chamber. Johnson stated that Johnson and Johnson were discussing two topics that day: the flag, the pandemic, and what they could do to combat both. Johnson said that Gunn “returns to his desk and says, Let’s discuss.'” Gunn informed the Democratic leader that he believes he has 12 Republican votes to change America’s flag. The 122-member House is composed of 44 Democrats and two Independents. 12 Republican votes would be enough to give the speaker the simple majority necessary to pass the proposal in normal legislative procedure. A flag bill was not possible to be passed because it was late in session. To suspend the rules for the adoption of the legislation, it would take a two-thirds supermajority. Gunn was able to boast only 12 Republican votes, but this was far less than the super majority. Three weeks later, at the crucial vote that would ultimately require a two thirds majority, 38 Republicans voted in favor of the change while 35 voted against it. Both independents and Democrats voted in favor of the change. How did it change from 12 Republican votes early June to 38 Republican votes last week? Gunn’s approval of a bipartisan group consisting of many Democrats and mostly new Republicans who whipped votes on this issue was one thing. The momentum for change inside and outside of the Capitol grew as House members were lobbyed by their peers. The flag issue was brought up by Senate Democrats who had not previously discussed it in this session. They were led by Democratic Senators. The first suspension resolution was filed by David Blount and Derrick Simmons both from Greenville. Gunn had conversations with several House Republicans throughout the process about the flag. Johnson stated that Johnson might be in trouble for saying it, but that he and the speaker are good friends. Johnson said that they can discuss anything, regardless of whether or not we agree. This bill to change the flag was passed by a “perfect storm”. White, R-West, and Johnson both made similar comments in separate interviews. Both mentioned the George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis as a way to shine a light on the Mississippi flag, and how many people viewed it racist. Johnson stated that there had been conversations about the flag prior to George Floyd’s death. Johnson also said that there were sparks in the Mississippi flag before George Floyd set them ablaze. White stated that if it hadn’t been for the pandemic we would have been back home when the George Floyd death occurred. “But because the pandemic was still raging, we were able do something.” Democrats and others have criticized Gunn for not pushing enough legislation through the House in order to change the flag. White and others stated that Gunn did not shy away from discussing his desire to change flag with the Republican caucus but never attempted to put undue pressure on them. Rep. Jerry Turner (R-Baldwyn) said that Gunn never pressured him. White stated that Gunn noticed momentum building to change the flag this year, and “He went along with it.” This, undoubtedly led to the unexpected, historic change.