By Emily Wagster Pettus
Phil Bryant, the Republican nominee for Mississippi governor, was being endorsed by the National Federation of Independent Business when he called an 11-year-old spectator up for a photo.
Stephen Griffin of Jackson earns money by walking dogs and feeding cats for neighbors while they're out of town.
"This is the future of the state of Mississippi," Bryant said as he shook hands with the young entrepreneur during the news conference in a Jackson flag store.
Bryant, who's wrapping up one term as lieutenant governor, is the top fundraiser this year in the open race for the governorship. He faces Democrat Johnny DuPree, the third-term mayor of Hattiesburg, in the Nov. 8 election. The winner takes office Jan. 10, succeeding two-term Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, who couldn't run again.
Bryant, 56, won the Republican nomination for governor on Aug. 2 by defeating businessman Dave Dennis of Pass Christian, Pearl River County Supervisor Hudson Holliday of Poplarville and businessman Ron Williams of Moss Point.
In campaign appearances this year, Bryant has said he opposes increasing taxes on the wealthy or corporations as a way to generate more revenue for a tight state budget.
He has said he wants to fight Mississippi's high school dropout problem by creating dual-track enrollment to help students who don't intend to earn four-year college degrees. He said they could take vocational classes at community colleges while finishing their academic credits to earn their high school diplomas.
"That 16- (or) 17-year-old that was in the 8th grade that said, 'I'm dropping out' can go and learn a trade," Bryant said told The Associated Press.
Bryant is a son of a diesel mechanic and a homemaker. He 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 McCluer High School in Jackson, then earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern Mississippi. He later earned a master's degree from Mississippi College, and since 2001, Bryant has had a part-time job teaching American Government and politics at the Baptist college in Clinton.
He and his wife of 35 years, Deborah, have two grown children -- a daughter and a son.
Bryant's first job out of USM was as a Hinds County deputy sheriff. He said 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 stayed in the job 16 years.
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.
With no incumbent in the 2007 lieutenant governor's race, Bryant ran for the job and won. In his Capitol office near the Senate chamber, Bryant displays a portrait of former President Theodore Roosevelt, one of his political heroes.
In accepting an endorsement recently from NFIB, Bryant said government needs to provide a stable environment so businesses can thrive. He mentioned his opposition to the federal health care overhaul that President Barack Obama signed into law.
"They have to know what their taxes are going to be. They have to understand what the effects of the Obama health care are going to be, and that's why I'm fighting that so hard," Bryant said. "They have to know we're going to have a stable legal environment where you're not one lawsuit away from bankruptcy."
Bryant has been endorsed by the Mississippi Tea Party.
"As lieutenant governor, he championed legislation that would protect Mississippians from Obamacare and other such federal mandates. He fought against the loss of jobs to illegal immigrants through his support of Arizona style legislation," the group's chairman, Roy Nicholson wrote in a news release.