Andy Taggart recently was sitting at a Jackson eatery explaining to a news reporter why he was running for attorney general — primarily to combat drugs and to be an active lawyer in the courtroom defending the state.
The reporter, thinking all the issues had been covered, was wrapping up the interview when Taggart voluntarily brought up another issue.
“I really think we need an attorney general who is as passionate about Mississippi’s future as an awful lot of people are about our past,” he said. “And one component of that which I think would help us in retaining young people in our state and recruiting their peers to come across state lines and stay here is to give our current state flag a dignified retirement.”
The success or failure of the Taggart campaign could be a key as to whether there is a concerted and bona fide effort in the foreseeable future to change the controversial state flag, which contains the Confederate battle emblem prominently in its design.
If Taggart does well in the upcoming election for attorney general, it could embolden fellow Republicans to take up the issue. Because he has embraced changing the state flag as a pivotal part of his campaign, if Taggart bombs in the election, Republican politicians will view the results as a warning to stay away from tackling the controversial issue.
One of Taggart’s Republican primary opponents in the race for attorney general, Rep. Mark Baker of Rankin County, is lining himself up as the defender of the current flag.
At a campaign event, Baker said, “I have been in the Legislature since 2004 and since that time … anybody who tried to pass a law to say we are going to change the state flag down in Jackson I fought that. I fought that because in 2001 the people decided that issue. I fought that because if that issue is going to change it is going to remain with the people and not the politicians down in Jackson.”
In the statement, Republican state Treasurer Lynn Fitch, who also is running for attorney general and is viewed as the favorite by some, said, “The people have spoken, and as attorney general, I will defend the laws of this state. Our flag is a part of our history, and should be preserved. But we need to find a way to address the concerns of the Mississippi Economic Council and our business community that the volatile nature of our most visible state symbol is impacting all our great work to bring new businesses and people to our state.”
It is safe to say no Republican politician before Taggart has run statewide as such a strong proponent of changing the flag. Last year, Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker won re-election after reversing course and saying he believes the flag should be changed. But Wicker ran as an entrenched incumbent against token Republican opposition and did not voluntarily bring the issue up during his campaign.
Since Taggart is running statewide for the first time, his stance on the flag will be a large part of what voters know about him.
There are essentially two ways to change the state flag in Mississippi – via a statewide election or via a bill passed by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor.
Based on polling results, a statewide initiative would yield the same results as the 2001 election did – an overwhelming vote to not change the flag. It is believed most Democrats – if not all – in the Legislature would support changing the flag. But the Mississippi Legislature is expected to remain in Republican control for years to come.
If the flag is ever going to change, it will take more Republicans like Taggart. If he loses the race for attorney general, Republicans who view the flag as a symbol that needs to be changed are not likely to make those feelings known.
Before the 2001 statewide vote, then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove announced a news conference where he said he would be joined by other statewide officeholders who favored changing the flag.
There was a lot of speculation on whom among the eight statewide officeholders would endorse changing the flag. That afternoon, six statewide officeholders stepped out of the governor’s state Capitol office to endorse a new flag. They were, in addition to Musgrove, Attorney General Mike Moore, Treasurer Marshall Bennett, Secretary of State Eric Clark, Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell and Insurance Commissioner George Dale.
Republican Auditor Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, who later switched to the Republican Party, were not part of that group.
This column was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture.
BOBBY HARRISON is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.