JACKSON, Miss.—Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn will not seek reelection in 2023, setting an end to his nearly 20-year legislative career and 12-year speakership. The Clinton, Miss., Republican announced his retirement from the Legislature at a House GOP Caucus meeting on Nov. 9, and will continue to serve as speaker through the 2023 legislative session.
“It has been one of the greatest honors of my life to serve as Speaker of the Mississippi House,” Gunn wrote in a statement after his announcement. “I am extremely grateful to the people of District 46 who have given me the opportunity to serve them for the last 20 years and to the members of the House who have entrusted the role of Speaker to me for 12 years. I believe we have moved Mississippi in a positive direction, and I am proud of what we have accomplished together and look forward to another productive session in 2023.”
The House will elect a new speaker at the beginning of the 2024 legislative session.
‘His Door Was Always Open’
Philip Gunn has long been a member and was once the chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a Virginia-based conservative organization responsible for model and often controversial legislation for statehouses across the country.
During his tenure, Mississippi’s conservative legislative majority has made large cuts to the state’s income tax. Most notably, Gunn’s chamber introduced the final bill that would eventually lead to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that overturned Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, allowing for full bans on abortion and other challenges to previously established 14th Amendment rights nationwide.
Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood, lauded Gunn’s long tenure in an interview with the Mississippi Free Press. “(Gunn) has done a great job in the House: the first Republican speaker since Reconstruction. He really helped lead a change in Mississippi. I wish him the best in whatever his future endeavors are.”
During the short Reconstruction period after the Civil War, Republicans were the party that supported Black voting rights, education equity and other equality measures in the South, while Southern Democrats resorted to continual terrorism to end Republican rule at the ballot box by 1875. The violence also ousted statewide Republicans, several of whom were Black. By the 1960s, Southern Democrats—then called Dixiecrats—began to join a reconstituted Republican Party, leading to a party switch on race issues and other ideology that continues today.
In 2020, Gunn joined with Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, numerous legislators from both parties, and a powerful coalition of athletes, activists and public figures to finally change Mississippi’s state flag, consigning the old Confederate banner to history amid nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. The move came after decades of work by Black activists and everyday citizens to change the flag.
Gunn’s leadership marked an era of total GOP control over the Legislature. His own management of House caucus affairs has increasingly moved important legislative activity into closed sessions, outside the view of the public and the media. Just this year, the Mississippi Free Press filed an ethics complaint against Speaker Gunn and the House GOP for barring this reporter from a closed session of the Republican House Caucus.
Rep. Christopher Bell, a Jackson Democrat, has had his share of political disagreements with Gunn, but told the Mississippi Free Press that the bipartisan effort to change the flag was a high point for the state’s legislative history.
“Politics aside, I think he’s a good guy. We don’t agree on a lot of things, but he’s shown leadership during my tenure,” Bell said. “His door was always open, and his leadership on the flag was huge. It showed that he has compassion and understands what unity means.”
Gunn’s Political Future Unclear
Multiple legislators told the Mississippi Free Press that Speaker Pro Tempore Jason White, R-West, is the most likely successor to the speakership. Still, the future of Mississippi’s House leadership lies behind elections for the entire State House of Representatives.
Gunn’s future is presently unclear, although rumors of his future political aspirations abound. “My service as Speaker coming to an end does not mean I will not be open to future opportunities to serve,” Gunn wrote in his statement. “I love our state and will always work to make her better. I believe there will be an opportunity for me to serve our state soon and when that time comes, I will be ready.”
Frequently, commentators have floated Gunn as a potential primary challenger to Gov. Tate Reeves, but the speaker has yet to announce any formal plans to run.
Gunn’s tenure was marked with clashes between himself and Mississippi’s other top statewide leadership, from inter-cameral fighting with Lt. Gov. Hosemann to open hostility with Reeves. In spite of any battles in the past or the future, Reeves lauded Gunn’s service in a statement.
“It has been a pleasure to serve with Speaker Philip Gunn,” Reeves wrote in part. “We have not always agreed on every individual tactical move—and trust me I know the media has always made a big deal of trying to highlight those minor differences. But I hope the people of Mississippi understand this: virtually every victory for the conservative movement over the last 15 years has been aided by his core beliefs and principles.”
Hosemann was similarly complimentary in his own statement. “My friend Philip Gunn has decided to pause his public service to MS. His fingerprints exist on most of our legislative history for his 12 years as Speaker. From child trafficking to tax reform, he provided consistent conservative, faith-based leadership to his colleagues,” the lieutenant governor wrote.