Gov. Tate Reeves was not a participant Wednesday in the momentous occasion where the state flags that flew over the Mississippi Capitol were removed – the official retirement of the banner featuring the Confederate battle emblem that had flown over the state since 1894.
As Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann delivered the flags to the Mississippi Museum of History in a ceremony officiated by the Department of Archives and History, Reeves was holding his first news conference since June 18 to give an update on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reeves already had scheduled his news conference before the legislative leaders set a time and date for the flag furling ceremony.
Both Gunn and Hosemann spoke of the significance of the day where the flag was retired.
Perhaps it could be argued that the absence of the governor at such a pivotal event in the state’s history was itself symbolic.
The flag debate that culminated on the weekend of June 27 with the Legislature voting to replace the flag put Reeves in a near-impossible political situation – a situation he most likely never saw coming until it was on top of him like a ton of bricks.
During his gubernatorial campaign in 2019, Reeves made it clear he would not support changing the flag without a vote of the people. But unfortunately for Reeves, Gunn never made that commitment. Since 2015, the House speaker has been on record as supporting changing the flag.
And as momentum grew nationwide and in Mississippi in recent weeks to address issues of racial injustice, the state flag stuck out like a sore thumb. Soon media reports surfaced that there were behind the scene talks among a bipartisan group of lawmakers to change the banner.
Still, Reeves must not have been too concerned. After all, despite Gunn’s opposition, the speaker had never tried to pass a bill changing the flag because he could not muster the simple majority needed to pass it. And at the late date in the session, a renewed effort to change the flag would require what appeared to be an impossible-to-achieve two-thirds majority vote.
But as talk persisted about changing the flag, Reeves was asked about the issue at his near daily news conferences held to provide COVID-19 updates. He reiterated his belief the flag should not be changed by the Legislature.
As the issue progressed, members of the media began to ask Reeves whether he personally believed the flag was offensive and should be changed. He refused to answer time and again, though he did say he believed one day the flag would be retired.
At his June 18 news conference, which was his last before the one he held during the flag ceremony, Reeves re-stated: “I believe very strongly if you are going to change the flag, it ought to be the people of Mississippi who make the decision.”
Finally, on June 25, as momentum grew, Reeves appeared to relent. Reeves said on social media that if the Legislature voted to change the flag, he would not veto the bill. He said because he knew a veto would be pointless, considering it took a two-thirds majority to override a veto – the same super majority it took to remove the flag late in the session.
And then on June 27 – a rare Saturday session of the Legislature – as Hosemann worked to garner the final votes needed to obtain the super majority in the Senate, Reeves announced he would sign the bill to change the flag.
There has been speculation that Reeves’ announcement that day helped garner the final vote or two needed to pass the bill. Perhaps the answer to that question will never be known, but it is worth noting that what Reeves said that Saturday morning was not much different than what he’d said a couple of days earlier when he announced he would not veto the legislation. After all, there was not much difference in not vetoing legislation and signing legislation. Under either scenario, the bill would have become law.
At any rate, later that day, both chambers passed by more than the two-thirds margin the resolution allowing the bill to change the flag to be considered. Then the next day, that bill passed both chambers by margins larger than two-thirds.
Two days later, when Reeves signed the bill into law in a private ceremony at the Governor’s Mansion where only three “pool reporters” were allowed to attend, he uttered for the first time his support for a new flag.
By then, six of the eight statewide officials had voiced support for changing the flag.
BobbyHarrson is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter and was a longtime Capitol reporter for the Daily Journal. Readers can contact him at 601-946-9931 or BHarrison@mississippitoday.org.
y, March 17, 2020.
The Legislature’s two presiding officers, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, 73, in the Senate and House Speaker Philip Gunn, 57, are at home quarantining after testing positive for COVID-19.
They are among a growing number of legislators, particularly in the House, and legislative staff who have tested positive in recent days.
The cases come after a hectic and historic past 10 days of the 2020 session as legislators voted to remove the state flag, which contains the Confederate battle emblem as part of its design, distribute about $1 billion in federal funds to deal with the coronavirus, and pass a budget for the new fiscal year.
Throughout that time period, recommended safety precautions to combat COVID-19, like wearing masks and social distancing, were to a large extent ignored by most legislators, though some did wear masks.
“It is the way we have been doing things in our country,” said Jarvis Dortch, who served Jackson as a Democrat in the House until this past Thursday when he stepped down to become executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi. “We get tired of the safety precautions and it becomes business as usual.”
While not all of the members who contracted the virus have been made public, Dortch said he could count as many as 12 House members whom he had heard tested positive for the virus. Others said the numbers are higher. On Tuesday afternoon, state Health Officer Thomas Dobbs said eight legislators had tested positive, though, many others were waiting on test results.
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When the session resumed in May after taking a recess in March because of concerns over the coronavirus, multiple safety precautions were put in place. The number of people allowed in the House and Senate chambers where the members’ desks are only a few feet apart, were limited. Most everyone, though not all, were wearing masks.
In late March, a Capitol Police officer reportedly tested positive for coronavirus while the Legislature was on hiatus, and in June legislative leaders also confirmed that an employee who occasionally works at the state Capitol tested positive as well.
Throughout the process, everyone has had to undergo a temperature check when entering the Capitol, though that was about the only safety precaution that was not eschewed.
As the historic debate to change the flag intensified, unusual focus was placed on the House Rules Committee since that is the committee where the flag legislation originated. Often, Rules Committee meetings, held in a small room, were crowded, near elbow to elbow. Gunn serves on this committee as do other members who reports indicate have tested positive.
Ironically, though, the first member to announce he was positive for COVID-19 was Rep. Bo Brown, D-Jackson, who was never seen not wearing a mask and often was wearing gloves.
“He even left his mask on to ask questions,” said Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens. “He might have gotten it away from the Capitol.”
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Dortch said he was glad Brown was wearing a mask. He said the people sitting near Brown in the House chamber have all been tested and none of them thus far have tested positive. Dortch said research indicates a mask worn by a person with the virus can provide a certain amount of protection for people the person with the illness comes in contact.
Senate Pro Tem Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, said Tuesday he was awaiting his test results. Should the Legislature be forced to come back into session before Hosemann recovers, Kirby would preside. If he was sick, Kirby said any senator could preside, though, it might fall to the Senate Rules Committee Vice Chair Walter Michel, a Madison County Republican. Kirby is Rules chair.
In the House, Pro-Tem Jason White, R-West, confirmed he had symptoms and was expecting to receive a positive test.
He said Gunn, who said Sunday he was not exhibiting many symptoms, remained in charge, but it is not clear who would preside if both he and the speaker were quarantined. Perhaps that would fall to Rules Chair Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn.
The Legislature had planned to come back late this week to try to pass a budget for the Department of Marine Resources for the new fiscal year that began on July 1. Since the new budget year began, the Gulf Coast agency had been performing only basic services.
DMR was the only agency left unfunded when the Legislature adjourned last week.
On Tuesday, Gov. Tate Reeves, who was with both Gunn and Hosemann last week when he signed into law a bill retiring the state flag, announced, he had tested negatively.