Phil Bryant was part of a Jaycees group invited to the White House in 1986 to meet President Ronald Reagan. He remembers sitting in the Roosevelt Room, near the Oval Office, and being in awe as the broad-shouldered Republican icon strode into the room, a mere 12 feet away, and urged the young civic-group presidents to become leaders in their own communities.
"What an unbelievable moment for a young boy from Moorhead, Mississippi, whose dad was a diesel mechanic, mother was a housewife, the youngest of three boys, first ever to graduate from college in his family," Bryant recalled.
He said Reagan's speech inspired him to later seek public office.
Now 56 and a one-term Republican lieutenant governor of Mississippi, Bryant is the top fundraiser in the open race for governor. Republican Haley Barbour -- who was political director for the Reagan White House in the mid-1980s -- is limited to two terms as governor and couldn't seek re-election this year.
In next Tuesday's Republican gubernatorial primary, Bryant, of Brandon, faces businessman Dave Dennis of Pass Christian, Pearl River County supervisor Hudson Holliday of Poplarville and businessman Ron Williams of Moss Point.
Five Democrats are competing in a gubernatorial primary. Runoffs for each party, if needed, are Aug. 23.
In the Nov. 8 general election, one independent is also running for governor. Competing factions of the Reform Party want to put a candidate in the race, and their inner-party dispute over who's running could be decided by the state Board of Election Commissioners sometime after the major-party primaries.
Bryant spent part of his childhood in the small Delta town of Moorhead before his family moved to the Jackson area. He graduated in 1973 from Jackson's McCluer High School, then earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern Mississippi. He later earned a master's degree from Mississippi College.
He and his Deborah, his wife of 35 years, have two grown children -- a daughter and a son.
Bryant's first job out of USM was as a Hinds County deputy sheriff.
"I loved every bit of it," Bryant told teenage delegates this summer at the American Legion Boys State convention in Hattiesburg. "I was 22 years old. Had a uniform, gun, badge, car that would do 140 an hour. I'm surprised they even paid me, it was so much fun. And there I was protecting people I didn't even know, catching the bad guys."
Bryant said although he loved being a deputy, he took a job as an insurance investigator once he and Deborah started their family because they needed the extra $400 a month the new job provided. He said he stayed in the job 16 years and turned down a transfer to Dallas because Reagan's speech about public service was still in his mind. Bryant decided he wanted to stay in Mississippi and run for office.
Although Dennis and other candidates are now criticizing Bryant as a career politician, Bryant says: "I'm proud of being in public service."
In 1991, Bryant defeated a Democratic incumbent to win a state House seat in Rankin County. In late 1996, when Democrat Steve Patterson stepped down as state auditor, Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice chose Bryant to fill the final three-plus years of the term. Bryant was elected auditor in 1999 and 2003.
As auditor, Bryant issued a report in 2006 that said illegal immigrants cost Mississippi $25 million a year for education, health care and other social services. While supporters said the report pointed to the need for tighter enforcement of immigration laws, critics said it ignored immigrants' role in the state's recovery from Hurricane Katrina, which struck in 2005.
With no incumbent in the 2007 lieutenant governor's race, Bryant ran for the job and won. He defeated state Sen. Charlie Ross, who also lives in Rankin County, in the Republican primary and Democrat Jamie Franks in the general election.
In 2008, during Bryant's first year as lieutenant governor, Mississippi enacted a law requiring all employers to use the federal electronic verification system to ensure that workers they're hiring are U.S. citizens or are in the country legally. During the 2011 session, Bryant supported an Arizona-style bill that allowing law enforcement officers to check people's immigration status during traffic stops -- but the bill died when the Mississippi House and Senate couldn't agree on final wording.
As lieutenant governor, Bryant presides over the 52-member state Senate. When introducing visitors in the Senate chamber or welcoming ministers who open the daily sessions with prayer, Bryant has the easy-banter style of an emcee. He has supported much of Barbour's agenda the past four years, including approval of millions of dollars in state incentives for a German company to manufacture stainless steel pipes in DeSoto County and a biofuels company to build three plants in Mississippi to convert timber products to a crude oil substitute.
Bryant has received endorsements in the governor's race from several prominent Republicans, including former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, current U.S. Reps. Alan Nunnelee and Gregg Harper and Meridian Mayor Cheri Barry.
Nunnelee served in the state Senate 15 years before winning a north Mississippi congressional seat this past November. In endorsing Bryant this year, Nunnelee wrote that he first met Bryant in 1995, when he served on the Senate Insurance Committee and Bryant was vice chairman of the House Insurance Committee.
"From the first day we met, I have known him to be an effective advocate for the conservative cause," Nunnelee wrote.
Since 2001, Bryant has had a part-time job teaching American government and politics at Mississippi College in Clinton. During the appearance at Boys State this summer, Bryant was clearly comfortable talking to young people. He said Mississippi's rate of teenage pregnancy, one of the highest in the nation, is a problem that contributes to generations of poverty. He urged the young men to finish school, and to stay in Mississippi to pursue their careers.
Bryant also said he opposes increasing taxes on the wealthy or on corporations as a way to generate more revenue for a tight state budget. When 17-year-old Jeremy Moore of Aberdeen said some people can't help being poor, Bryant said the United States provides education and health care systems that help people pull themselves out of poverty.
"Don't punish the winners," Bryant said. "Become one. It's all about opportunity."