Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Philip Gunn Whips the Final House Votes to Change the State Flag

By Adam Ganucheau

Mississippi Today

This is part five in a five-part series about Philip Gunn’s influence in changing the Mississippi state flag. Read the full series here.

State Rep. Manly Barton walked into Speaker of the House Philip Gunn’s office on June 25, 2020, for what he knew would be a difficult conversation.

With the clock ticking on the 2020 legislative session, Gunn was sprinting to whip the necessary votes to suspend the rules to change the state flag, the last in the nation featuring the Confederate battle emblem. Barton, the 72-year-old Jackson County Republican who was in his eighth year in office, was among the final holdouts.

Because lawmakers were in session in June following COVID-19 delays, general bill deadlines had long passed. Gunn needed about 40 Republican votes to join the 44 Democrats to suspend the rules to even get to the bill that would change the flag. Once House leaders cleared the heftier rules suspension threshold, they knew the simple majority vote to change the flag would sail through.

On Monday of that final week, Gunn had counted just 14 of the 40 necessary Republican votes. But in just three days, as the pressure outside the Capitol had reached a fever pitch, Gunn and his allies had whipped about 35 Republican votes.

“Talk about all the things that had to come together, all the House members who ended up voting with us… Manly Barton is the one that inspires me the most,” Gunn told Mississippi Today.

Like most rural district Republicans, Barton had assured his district’s constituents for years that he would not vote to change the flag. Barton’s stance ran so deep that his main campaign placard featured a photo of him while serving in Vietnam. Draped in the background of the photo was the old Mississippi state flag.

Gunn, for years the most prominent state Republican who had publicly called for a new flag, was closer than he’d ever been to having the votes to get there. He needed Barton, and he believed he would flip.

“He stood behind that leather chair,” Gunn recalled, pointing across his office. “I said, ‘Manly, I need your vote.’ He said, ‘Mr. Speaker, I just can’t do it. I just can’t do it.’

“I said to him, ‘All I need is for you to vote to suspend the rules, you don’t have to vote to change the flag when the separate bill comes up.’ He moaned and groaned and said, ‘I just can’t do it.’ That went on for about 10 minutes, and I talked to him about the legacy he’d be leaving, about how his children and grandchildren would remember this moment.”

Barton left the office without giving Gunn a hard commitment.

Later that night, Gunn was at dinner with a group of House Republicans when Barton approached his table, tapped him on the shoulder and asked to speak with him privately. For about 45 minutes, Barton explained to Gunn how he felt about the flag, and he expressed fear that he couldn’t get reelected in his majority-white rural district if he voted to change the flag.

“He wanted to do the right thing. He’d struggled with it all day, so he called his wife,” Gunn recalled. “She asked him, ‘Are you going to be able to look at yourself in the mirror the day after this vote and be proud of what you’ve done?’ He looked at me and said, ‘I know the answer to that. You know, I gotta do the right thing. Not only will I vote to suspend the rules, I’m going to vote to change the flag.’”

There are several similar stories from the final hours before the vote. To this day, Gunn won’t take credit for Barton or any of the other flips of House holdouts. He insists that their families or maybe even God moved them, and that statements from business, religious and sports leaders gave them enough political cover to get there.

“I just gave them the opportunity,” Gunn said. “I brought them in here one by one. I said, ‘Where are you? Don’t you want to be on the right side of history here? People will forever look back on this moment.’ And, you know, before too long, the votes started coming together.”

But several House members told Mississippi Today they fully credit Gunn for his consistent message about the legacy they would all be leaving and getting the key holdouts on board —.an effort that began in an unplanned June 11 Republican caucus speech.

“The practical reality is that the flag doesn’t change without (Gunn’s) leadership,” said Rep. Robert Johnson, the House Democratic leader. “When we first came to him in early June with the desire to try, he went to work. If he doesn’t take that initiative and start telling his caucus how important it was, this doesn’t happen. That leadership didn’t come from Tate Reeves or Delbert Hosemann, it came from Philip Gunn.”

When Gunn left that dinner on Thursday, June 25, he and his leadership team felt they had received enough verbal commitments to meet the 81-vote threshold needed to suspend the rules and take up the flag bill.

But three main questions remained: What, exactly, would the bill look like? How many House members did they really have on board? Did the Senate have enough votes to suspend its rules if the House did its part?

House and Senate leaders negotiated the contents of the bill itself for at least four days, all the way up to the morning of June 28, when the House voted to suspend the rules. Gunn, along with his trusted confidants Rep. Jason White and Rep. Trey Lamar, had talked at least a dozen times that final week with Hosemann and Senate chairmen Sen. Briggs Hopson and Sen. Josh Harkins about the details of the bill.

Hosemann, who had just a couple of days before still not supported lawmakers making the change themselves, had agreed to legislative change as long as the new flag had the words “In God We Trust” on it. Gunn, too, insisted that phrase make the final bill. Many lawmakers expressed to reporters that week they felt that the slogan would provide some political cover for them to vote for the change.

“Who would vote against God on the ballot?” a Senate Republican chairman quipped to a Mississippi Today reporter on the day of the final vote.

After a couple of days of back-and-forth, House and Senate leaders decided the bill would feature three main elements: It would create a commission to select a new flag design (including the words “In God We Trust”), it would require that the commission report back to legislators and it would eliminate the Confederate battle emblem from consideration.

The House and Senate leaders were careful not to put the contents of the bill on paper because they didn’t want the details to leak to the press and give the public or even some on-the-fence lawmakers time to poke holes in the plan.

The next question to answer was how many House members were on board. On the evening of Friday, June 26, Gunn and his leadership team thought they had 84 votes — more than enough to suspend the rules and later pass a veto-proof flag bill. But before Gunn called the vote, he had to be sure.

“I took my caucus, and I divided it into five groups,” Gunn said. He assigned a handful of members to Rep. Jason White, another group to his chief of staff Trey Dellinger, another group to his policy director TJ Taylor, and another group to his former chief of staff Nathan Wells. Gunn took the final group himself.

“I told them to call every member and ask for three things,” Gunn said. “First, you will vote to suspend the rules. Second, you will vote against any floor amendments offered. Third, you will vote to change the flag. I needed them to answer all three in the affirmative. So we spent a couple hours making those calls, and the number was dead on. We had 84 votes.”

Late that week, as Gunn focused on the House, he also had to keep an eye on the Senate. If he garnered enough House votes to suspend the rules and change the flag, he wanted to be sure the Senate would follow suit. Otherwise, the effort would have been for naught.

“You can’t overlook the effort given by a number of young lobbyists who were working mostly on senators,” Gunn said. “There was a group of 10 or 12 lobbyists — all of them of the younger generation that frankly was always more supportive of the change. They weren’t paid by anybody. They just decided to give up their time to work the issue because they thought it was the right thing to do.”

Meanwhile, White and Lamar were in constant communication with Hopson and Harkins, the Senate leaders. The young lobbyists and the Senate leaders communicated to Gunn on the night of Friday, June 26, that the Senate would make their number.

On the morning of Saturday, June 27, the Capitol was buzzing. Mississippi Today reported the night before that the House had their votes and would suspend the rules to consider the flag bill on Saturday.

Many lawmakers brought their families to the building for the historic day. Everyday Mississippians lined up outside the House gallery in hopes of being in the chamber when the vote was cast. Reporters from around the South and the nation were present to document the moment.

Gunn gaveled in the House that morning, but neither the rules suspension nor the flag bill were on the calendar. Leaders on both sides of the building remained eerily quiet all morning. The suspense spurred questions about whether something had happened overnight.

Behind the scenes, though, leaders were still hammering out the details of the bill itself, legislative attorneys were ensuring the language was air-tight, and the Senate was still counting its votes. Gunn was adamant that the House would not take up the resolution until he got a verbal commitment from Senate leaders that they had their number.

Gunn received that confirmation of the Senate votes around noon, and he quickly called a House Republican caucus meeting on the second floor. He informed his members that both chambers had the votes, and they would soon go back upstairs to take the procedural vote.

Several Republicans who opposed the flag change loudly voiced their opinions in that meeting, but there was no changing minds at that point.

Gunn, White and Lamar left the caucus meeting, walked into the speaker’s office and closed the door. They had decided a couple days before that White, as House pro tem and someone who worked hard to whip the votes, would handle the bill on the floor. White had been rehearsing his speech since Friday night.

“I remember working on all that and, uh, it was very emotional. I think all of us understood the weight of the moment,” Gunn said of the final few seconds before they walked onto the House floor for the rules suspension vote. “I recall as we were in the office just working on our speeches, how choked up we all got just contemplating that moment.”

Gunn had Rep. Lee Yancey, a Republican from Rankin County, come into his office to pray for the small group before they walked to the House floor for the vote.

On the floor, White delivered what some consider one of the best speeches given on the floor of the Mississippi House of Representatives. Many of his colleagues and visitors in the gallery openly wept.

Then came the moment so many people had been waiting so long for. The final vote on the House rules suspension was actually one vote better than Gunn counted the night before: 85 yeas, 35 nays. 

House members applauded for several minutes. Cheers echoed through the halls of the Capitol. Visitors hugged and wiped tears from their faces.

A couple of hours later, the Senate followed suit, voting to suspend its rules to consider the bill. The biggest procedural hurdles had been overcome, and everyone knew the flag would be changed the very next day.

As the House votes on the rules suspension were tallied, Gunn held back tears from the speaker’s podium.

“It’s hard to describe,” Gunn said when asked about his feelings during that moment. “This had been a long journey. Five years to the month of being out front and advocating for this, such a long time that nobody had really bought in. You just feel like it’s all been worth it because we’ve now turned a corner in the history of our state. The magnitude of that moment, I don’t think any of us even realized it at the time.”

The next day, on June 28, the House passed the bill that actually changed the flag — the historic event but just a formality after Saturday’s rules suspension. Nine House Republicans who had voted against suspending the rules on Saturday actually voted to change the flag on Sunday — a change of heart certainly prompted by the overwhelmingly positive press the state had received the day before. The Senate passed its flag bill a few minutes later on June 28.

The state flag that had flown over Mississippi for 126 years had been furled for good.

“Just to think that flag will be flying long after we’re all gone, both from the Legislature and this life, it was just a momentous occasion,” Gunn said in the interview earlier this year. “Everybody involved in the process can take pride in the fact that they played a role in that history and put forward an image that’s positive.”

For five years, Gunn was on a limb in his party. He remained patient, even while taking criticism from several political factions, and he watched carefully for the right moment to move. 

When that moment came in June 2020, as thousands of Mississippians and millions of Americans protested racial inequality, Gunn challenged his fellow Republicans to think about their neighbors, the future of the state and their own individual legacies. He coordinated critical meetings and asked religious, university and sports leaders to get involved at key inflection points. He strategically pieced together the legislative coalition necessary to make the change based on the relationships he’d built over the past several months and years.

After the final vote on June 28, Gunn called a press conference outside the House chamber and invited several lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats alike — to give speeches. Several lawmakers got choked up as they talked about the significance of the vote and the moment.

But when it came time for Gunn to speak, he gave credit for the change to everyone but himself.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.