by Tim Storey
By the end of this week, 38 legislatures will be officially in session including several operating with new leaders. The most notable leadership changes are in the Mississippi House and the Virginia Senate where 2011 elections led to Republican takeovers and Republicans in the top roles.
(For a complete list of current legislative leaders click here.)
The Mississippi House elected its first Republican Speaker in 135 years on January 3 when Clinton, Mississippi attorney Philip Gunn was chosen unanimously by House members to be the new speaker following the November 2011 election in which Republicans won a 64-58 majority in the chamber. Speaker Gunn was first elected to the House in 2003. In addition to his legislative and legal work, he serves on the Board of Trustees for The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Representative Greg Snowden was chosen by the House to be the speaker pro tem.
In the Mississippi Senate, Republicans expanded their majority in the chamber to 31-21 last November, and voters chose Tate Reeves to be the lieutenant governor and head of the Senate. On opening day, Senator Terry Brown was selected by his peers to be the new President Pro Tem.
Last November's elections in Virginia led to a 20 D - 20 R tie in the Old Dominion Senate making for an interesting couple of months leading up the convening of the regular session last Wednesday. Republicans asserted that they would control the chamber because the Republican lieutenant governor would break tie votes in the chamber. Democrats filed suit in state court claiming that the Constitution did not allow the GOP to organize as the majority with the lieutenant governor as a tie-breaker. The court declined to intervene although the case is still pending. When the Virginia Senate convened last week, there was a prolonged, and respectful, debate culminating with Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling casting a decisive tie-breaking vote for the GOP to run the chamber. Republican Senator Thomas Norment will serve as the Majority Leader with Senator Richard Saslaw leading the Democrats.
Republicans added seats in the Virginia House of Delagates, and they now have their largest majority in that body in modern history. The House elected Speaker William Howell to preside over his 10th consecutive legislative session. Virginia House Democrats chose Delagate David Toscano as the new minority leader.
Louisiana also held general legislative elections last year, and term limits meant that several leaders including Speaker Jim Tucker and Senate President Joel Chaisson could not seek reelection. As noted previously in the Thicket, the Senate chose former House Speaker John Alario to be its new president. In the Bayou State House, members chose Representative Chuck Kleckley as the new speaker. Speaker Kleckley is the state's first speaker from Calcasieu Parish. He entered the House in 2005 by winning a special election to fill a vacant seat. Reprsentative Walt Leger III will be the new Louisiana House speaker pro tem.
In New Jersey, after the 2011 election Assembly Democrats replaced Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan with Louis Greenwald. Speaker Sheila Oliver continues as the top leader of the Assembly. No other changes were expected.
But then late last Monday, on the last night of the 2010-11 biennium, Garden State legislators were shocked to learn about the death of Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce who collapsed and died in the Statehouse after a long day of session. The minority leader position remains vacant for now.
A number of other leadership changes have taken place in states that did not hold elections last year. In Minnesota, Senator Dave Senjem became the Senate's top leader in December after Republican senators elected the third-term senator from Rochester to be the new majority leader. Senator Senjem was elected to fill the vacancy in the top post after previous Majority Leader Amy Koch resigned from the job amid allegations of an inappropriate relationship with a staff person. Senator Senjem served as the chamber's minority leader prior to the 2010 election when Republicans won control. He previously worked for the Mayo Clinic as an environmental affairs officer before his retirement.
Hawaii Representative Pono Chong is the Aloha State's new House majority leader. Representative Chong, who serves on the NCSL Executive Committee, replaced Representative Blake Oshiro who resigned to take a position with the state's new governor.
The Arizona Senate convened with a new president after voters recalled Senator Russell Pearce last fall. To replace Pearce, Arizona Senate Republicans turned to Senator Steve Pierce, a rancher from Prescott.
In California, Republicans named Senator Bob Huff as the new Senate minority leader. In Colorado Democrat Mark Ferrandino is the new House minority leader replacing Sal Pace who resigned his leadership post to focus on a congressional campaign.