Pro Texana Medal of serviceOct. 3, 2012
2012-13 Baylor University Meritorious Achievement Awards // Pro Texana Medal of service
Philip Gunn, BBA '85
In the state of Mississippi, Phil Gunn has been at the forefront of changing "politics as usual" since 2004. In January, the attorney, Baptist elder and former waiter at El Chico's on Waco's Circle became the first Republican Speaker of the House in Mississippi since 1876.
Visitors to the Speaker's office in Jackson, Miss., find two things waiting for them.
"The only two publications that I permit to sit on the coffee table in my waiting room are the Baylor magazines and the Mississippi outdoor hunting magazines," says Gunn. "My staff gets irritated because I throw away all the other stuff that they put out, and I go, 'Where did all of this other propaganda come from?' That's the only thing you'll find, and I've got RG3 and the Baylor Lady Bears proudly displayed on top."
When Gunn graduated high school in Clinton, Miss., he knew he wanted to play Division I football. Two men in his hometown were Baylor graduates, and they encouraged him to check it out. That opportunity came after visiting with Grant Teaff, when Baylor brought him to Waco for a visit.
"I liked what I saw and decided to walk on at Baylor," Gunn says. "We had some good teams back then. I was not good enough to get on the field, but nevertheless enjoyed my time on the team and the friendships that I made with my teammates."
Gunn also met his wife, the former Lisa Watkins, BBA '86, at Baylor -- eventually.
"I had concluded my wife was not at Baylor. I had been there for four years, and hadn't met any girl who liked me enough," recalls Gunn. "Lisa was a Tri-Delt, and I actually met her in the spring semester of my senior year. We dated for a year and a half and got married."
The couple has now been together 26 years, and they have four children: Ole Miss MBA student Meredith; twin left-handed college pitchers Alex and Andrew; and nine-year-old John David.
After Baylor, Gunn worked at El Chico's, while Lisa finished her degree and Phil waited to begin law school at the University of Mississippi School of Law.
As Gunn was leaving Waco, his sister, Jana, began her freshman year at Baylor. Tragically, during her sophomore year, she and both their parents died in a car accident when a drunk driver in Mississippi struck their vehicle.
"Next to where the Baylor Bookstore is now stands the monument to all the Baylor students who have been killed," says Gunn. "Jana and three other kids were killed that year. I believe 1988 was the very first year Baylor started that monument. They had a dedication of the monument, and we were invited to come back and had a nice time. If you go out and look, Jana's will be one of the first four names. She loved Baylor."
Though he served as student body president in law school, Gunn says he never had a goal of getting into politics, but because of unfavorable redistricting in his hometown, he was asked to run in 2003. If he didn't run -- and win -- Gunn's hometown of Clinton, the 10th-largest city in the state, would not have had a voice in the House of Representatives.
"I decided to do it, but if I knew then what I know now, I probably wouldn't have," he admits. "It was a very, very difficult election to win."
The incumbent for the House seat was the nephew of Haley Barbour, a very popular politician who was himself on the ballot for state governor. After Gunn lost by 17 votes in the primary, an error was found in how the district had been redrawn. A court-ordered special re-vote election resulted in Gunn winning by 155 votes. Barbour appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in Gunn's favor, ending the six-month process.
Over the next few years in the traditionally staunchly Democratic state, Gunn chaired a Republican caucus focused on gaining a majority in the House in order to pass legislation Gunn deemed long overdue. Of the 122 House members in 2003, only 47 were Republicans. Over time, Gunn helped raise that number to 64, achieving the majority, and a Republican speaker had to be elected.
"I was just fortunate to be selected as the first Republican Speaker in our state in 136 years. It coincided with the first time in 136 years that Republicans have had control of the governorship, the Senate and the House at the same time," says Gunn.
Amidst the sweeping changes, Gunn is pleased with his state's ability to pass a vast array of important legislation.
"This year we passed a budget that funded all state agencies, did not raise taxes, and saved $300 million for next year's budget. I think the taxpayers will be extremely pleased with that. We did not spend more money than we brought in. That's something the state of Mississippi has not seen in a long, long time. When we campaigned, we said, 'Give us an opportunity and we will do good things,' and this is one example of that."
In this year's legislative session, Gunn has played a key role in passing a child protection act, pro-life legislation, a new voter ID law and another round of redistricting, among others. Legislators did all this in 10 days fewer than they were allotted, which ended the session early and saved taxpayers around $500,000.
"Those are some of the big things we did, major pieces of legislation that will help improve the lives of all Mississippians, and we did it in a short amount of time," says Gunn. "That just demonstrates to me that the Republicans got in there, they got the job done, they did it quickly and efficiently and got out of town, which is, again, something we promised people we would do. I feel like we've had a very productive session, and I feel proud of all we accomplished.
"We came into something that we were completely unfamiliar with, a new role, new responsibilities, and met those challenges with success, but we have to be quick to give God the credit for all that. We didn't have the wisdom or ability to do this ourselves. We could not have done it without Him."