By Geoff Pender
Gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said meeting President Ronald Reagan inspired him to enter politics.
"It was 1986, and a group of us from the Jackson Jaycees went to the White House," Bryant said. "He met with us in the Roosevelt Room. After hearing him speak -- I went back home and told Deborah (Bryant's wife), "I have a great job, a corporate job, a 401(k), a company car . But I'm not making a difference. What I'm doing is not making a difference in this world.'"
He soon entered politics, where he's had an extraordinary career. But Bryant, the first member of his family to go to college, said he never expected to become governor and that sometimes at night, that possibility still astounds him.
"Me and my brothers will say, we never even dreamed we'd meet a governor," Bryant joked. "When I say I'm the first in my family to go to college, I don't mean just me and my brothers . My dad was a diesel mechanic . The first new pair of shoes he ever had was from the Navy, when he joined the Seabees."
Bryant faces Democratic Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree in the Nov. 8 general gubernatorial election.
Badge, gun, fast car
Bryant credits his hard-won education, a natural love of hard work, his parents and his wife for his success.
Bryant, 56, was born in Sunflower County in the Delta, the youngest of three brothers. His family moved to South Jackson, where he graduated from high school.
"My senior year, I went to work at Big-10 Tires," Bryant said. "Changing tires five-and-a-half days a week made me decide I would check out community college. I had a brochure from Hinds we had gotten in the mail. I drove out to Raymond, and they let me in school there."
Bryant said he not only found an education at Hinds, but his wife of 35 years now.
Bryant said he had dreamed of becoming a deputy, and studied police science at Hinds. He said someone told him his credits would transfer to Southern Miss' criminal justice program. He went to a bank and secured a school loan.
"I loaded up everything in my Chevrolet Vega," Bryant said. "When I got there and got out at Bond Hall, that was the first time I had ever set foot on a university campus. I mean, we had never even gone to football games or anything."
After graduating in criminal justice, Bryant got a job as a Hinds County deputy in 1976, making about $450 a month, and loved the job.
"I had a uniform, a gun, a badge and a car that would do 140 mph, and I was out there arresting bad guys," Bryant said. "It was great."
He soon rose to the post of chief investigator. In 1981, he said, a company that specialized in insurance-fraud investigations was looking for investigators and offered him a job. He worked there for 16 years.
After being inspired by Reagan, Bryant in 1991 won a Rankin County state House seat and quickly became a leader of what was then a small group of Republicans in the Legislature. He also went back to school and earned a master's degree in political science from Mississippi College.
Bryant was elected to a second House term. Then in 1996, Gov. Kirk Fordice, whom Bryant had helped campaign in Rankin County, appointed him to fill the vacant state auditor's seat. He then won two elections to keep the post.
In 2007, Bryant won the lieutenant governor's post. In his first three statewide elections, he never gained less than 55 percent of the vote.
Focus on jobs
In a meeting with the Sun Herald on Wednesday, Bryant said as governor he would be focused on creating jobs and keeping existing jobs.
He outlined his jobs program, which includes keeping corporate taxes low and creating a "Governor's Regulatory Commission." He said this 12-member civilian panel would review current regulatory practices to ensure fairness and make the state more business friendly.
Bryant said he would push to phase out the inventory tax and reduce the sales tax on construction equipment.
He said the state must expand its energy exploration and production, and look to new technologies such as biofuels, clean coal and nuclear and solar engergy "to ensure Mississippi maintains its roles as a world leader in energy production."
Bryant said he would continue to promote tourism on the Coast and statewide.
"There are 81,000 direct and indirect jobs in Mississippi in tourism and travel," he said. "That's 81 Toyota plants."
Bryant said he would also work to bring more manufacturers to the state. He said he would love for the state slogan to change from "the Hospitality State" to "We Make Things."
Bryant refuses to take campaign donations from casinos, and said he opposes them expanding to jurisdictions beyond where they are now. But he said he fought any efforts in the Legislature to raise their taxes and he doesn't oppose the industry.
"It is a big business in the state of Mississippi and is providing a lot of jobs," Bryant said.
Bryant, who helped push for several open-government, ethics and transparency reform measures in the Legislature said he would continue to do so as governor.
Ideas on social issues
On Mississippi's social ills, Bryant said he would push to lower the school-dropout rate and to bring more doctors to the state. He said he would use the bully pulpit, and work with law enforcement and the Legislature to help lower the state's nation-leading teen-pregnancy rate.
"The first thing we've got to do is say as a state, as a society, that it's unacceptable for a 15-year-old girl to have a baby." He drew a parallel to cigarette smoking -- once accepted everywhere, now shunned by many people and places.
Bryant said in some parts of the state, prosecutors and law enforcement appear to be looking the other way when older men impregnate young teens. He said laws and attitudes need to be changed so men know "we will put them in orange jumpsuits" if they have sex with underage girls.
Bryant said too many young fathers are not helping pay for and raise children, keeping mothers and children in a cycle of poverty and other problems.
"I know this is happening in all communities -- white communities, middle-class communities," Bryant said. "But in black communities, poor African-American communities, the numbers have become so high that it's almost expected . There's even a term for it now -- "baby daddy.' We've got to say, "No, we are not going to have baby daddies any more. We are going to find that rascal and make him pay for it.'"
For older men and underage girls, he said: "I'll ask the Legislature to help draw a clear, bright line. They're raping a child. In what society would we allow that to go on?"