By Shana O'Malley
As current lieutenant governor, former state auditor and former Mississippi House of Representatives member, Phil Bryant has learned a thing or two in the halls of the state Capitol building.
The conservative Republican, who is currently campaigning for the Republican nomination in the 2011 Mississippi Governor's race, came from a humble beginning and has come a long way from his deputy sheriff days in Rankin County.
"I was born in Moorhead, my dad was a diesel mechanic and no one in my family had ever graduated from college," says Bryant. "The Delta has always been close to my heart and there are many wonderful times I've spent there with my family and friends."
Bryant spent part of his childhood in Moorhead. His family later moved to Jackson and Bryant has lived in the Jackson area ever since, currently in Rankin County. He met his wife, Deborah, there and they have two children: Katie and Patrick. And, while Bryant has worked long and hard to arrive at where he is today, his career began at a tire company.
"I went to work at a tire company in Jackson five and a half days a week," says Bryant. "It was a good job and I learned a lot of lessons about a lot of things in that job. How to work with others and the public was one of them."
Bryant says that while working for the tire company, one day he saw a flyer in the mail from Hinds Community College.
"It made me think about going to college," says Bryant. "I took the ACT and started going to Hinds while I was working at the Western Auto Warehouse. Then, I borrowed enough money from the bank to go to Southern Miss to get a degree in criminal justice. After Southern, I got a job at the Hinds County Sheriff's Department as a deputy sheriff in 1976."
In 1981, Bryant was offered a position with a company that handled fraud and fire investigations for insurance companies.
"They offered me $400 more a month more than I was making and with my wife's encouragement, I stayed there for 16 years," laughs Bryant. "No one was shooting at me and there were no calls in the middle of the night, and it was a very good company."
With a good paying job and a healthy growing family, Bryant thought he was content. However, a trip to Washington, D.C. in 1986 changed the course of his life, maybe forever.
Bryant, was a member of the Jaycees in Rankin County back in 1986 and he was also a friend of Gary Wilkinson, a Mississippian who was president of the national Jaycee organization at the time. Wilkinson invited Bryant to represent the state of Mississippi at the annual Jaycee meeting at The White House. A meeting with President Ronald Reagan sen t Bryant's life into another direction.
"We met President Reagan in the Roosevelt Room at The White House and it was an incredible experience," says Bryant. "It was a surreal moment: a kid born in Moorhead, Mississippi, who's dad was a diesel mechanic, and through fate and the good fortune of being from Mississippi, I was in The White House and meeting with one of the most popular presidents in U.S. history. I don't think things like that happen by accident. I think there is a unique course in life for all of us and that day at The White House changed the course of my life."
After Bryant's meeting with President Reagan, who spoke to the group about their responsibility as citizens and as conservatives, Bryant returned to Mississippi and told his wife, "We've got a great job, we're making good money, but I'm not making a difference."
After contemplating his Washington trip and what it meant, Bryant met with the Rankin County Republican Party Executive Committee and began gathering information about running for office.
In 1991, he won a seat in the Mississippi House of Representatives. Bryant admits that although he didn't know much about how politics and the legislature worked, he was determined to figure it out, learning it from the ground up, just as he had with everything else.
"I didn't even know where the House chamber was," says Bryant. "In fact, I don't think I had ever been inside of the Capitol until I was elected to the House of Representatives."
Bryant's determination didn't go unnoticed. He made friends quickly with Capitol heavy weights including former Republican governor, Kirk Fordice. The two became very close.
"I met Kirk at a Republican luncheon and he came over and told me he was running for governor," says Bryant. "Kirk introduced me to some people and I introduced him to some others as well. It was really challenging because there were so few Republicans during that time, maybe 22 or 23 of us. Jim Ellington was somebody I remember well from that time period. He had been a Republican for a long time and Jim was a guy that I would go to when I needed help and advice. He helped me determine what committees I needed to be on and advised me on key decisions I had to make. Jim started the Conservative Coalition and I was the first paid member of that organization."
In 1996, State Auditor, Steve Patterson resigned. Governor Fordice knew exactly who should be selected to fill that seat.
"Kirk's chief of staff called and said the Governor wanted to talk to me about being state auditor," says Bryant. "I met with Kirk and I told him I needed to talk to my wife about it and he told me that would be fine, but that next morning he was holding a press conference and was naming me to fill the state auditor's position. I'm glad he did because at the end of the day, that position was a perfect fit for me. I had been in law enforcement and insurance investigation, I'd been in the legislature, I'd gone back to Mississippi College and got a degree in political science, so I had been studying government, and now I came into the state auditor's office as a conservative Republican."
During his time as state auditor, Bryant's team arrested more than 200 public officials and government employees and collected over $12 million in misused money.
Bryant ran for re-election in 1999 and was the only Republican elected statewide that year.
"I drove across the state and met with local organizations," says Bryant. "That campaign was a real grassroots effort. We only had one television commercial. What I learned out of that is that people do vote for the person and not always the party because if that was the case, I would have never been re-elected."
Mississippians approved of Bryant's performance by re-electing him to the state auditor's seat again in 2003.
After more than a decade in the state auditor's position, Bryant began considering the lieutenant governor's seat.
"When I decided to run for lieutenant governor, I really looked at what I had accomplished at the state auditor's office," says Bryant. "I felt it was the time, if I wanted to make even more of a difference for our state. I truly believed that for conservative Republicans, it was the time to make our move."
Bryant ran for the lieutenant governor's office and won. He took office in 2008, with Governor Haley Barbour, who was entering the beginning of his second term as governor. Bryant says he's learned the importance of thoroughly understanding the issues facing the state.
"Haley Barbour is a brilliant man," Bryant says. "For three and a half years I've worked with him, but I've known him for 30 years. In order to lead, you need to know how it all works. You must know how to manage a natural disaster; you have to know how to put out the executive budget recommendations and Haley Barbour knows how it all works."
As lieutenant governor, Bryant has had the opportunity to watch and learn the executive branch firsthand. He's worked with economic development initiatives, education reform, and state budgets.
"He not only understands our challenges, but he realizes our opportunities and potential and he has repeatedly demonstrated the ability and desire to roll up his sleeves and go to work with us to make good things happen," says Tom Gresham of Indianola. "Phil was instrumental in helping create the Delta Workforce Training Coordinator position which is a partnership between MDA, MDES, Delta Workforce Investment Area, our community colleges and Delta Council. This position helps coordinate workforce training for businesses and industry in the Delta. We're the only region in the state to have this and it is making a difference."
"Mississippi is making progress, and I believe Phil Bryant can best sustain the momentum Haley (Barbour) has created as governor," adds Henry Barbour. "Phil will support lower taxes, fewer regulations and less government intervention that will lead to more jobs for the people of our state. Phil also understands the importance of supporting our schools so our young people are prepared to succeed in life."
Bryant has a reputation for getting things done, he has a low tolerance for inefficiency and he's not afraid to call foul.
"I'll often ask a crowd of people I speak to, to raise their hand if they think the current budgeting system is efficient and effective, and not one hand has ever gone up," says Bryant. "I tell them when I was deputy sheriff, we'd call that a clue! This budget system is horrible. It's politically manipulated by power members of the legislature for their own purposes, and that needs to be stopped."
If a system isn't working, Bryant says he is quick to find a solution.
"Three years ago we passed a law that said if you're a superintendent or board member in a failing school district for two years in a row, you're removed from office," says Bryant. "We will put someone in there who can lead, because our children deserve a high-quality education. That's one of the reasons why I'm running for governor. Having served 11 years as state auditor, we audited every state agency, every school district, every college and I know where the failures are, and I know how to fix it. You have to have the political dynamics in place in the legislature to help you solve these things and I think we're poised to make real, significant reforms very soon."
Bryant sees a lot of positives in the state's future including better healthcare, more opportunities for workforce training and higher education, more manufacturing and more tourism in the state.
"The most exciting thing that I see happening now is that we have finally discovered the music industry in the state," says Bryant. "That's like having gold buried somewhere in our backyard. We are the birthplace of American music. There is nothing I think that has more potential in the tourism industry then the blues and our other music."
Bryant says that in his bid for governor he has a strong foundation built for the August 2 primary, and he says next month will be busy with campaigning and fundraising efforts.
"You can never slow down," he says. "And, you never can take anything for granted. That's why I'm working as hard as I can in this campaign. I'm thankful for the many years I have been blessed to serve the people of Mississippi and I'm thankful for this moment as well. I'm running for governor because I want to continue making a positive difference for our state." DBJ