By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
JACKSON — It was a poignant bookend to the 2013 session of the Mississippi Legislature — the passing of a House of Representatives seat from father to surviving son.
During the session’s opening hours on Jan. 8, lawmakers were told that Rep. David Gibbs of West Point was stepping down because of poor health. The resignation letter for 76-year-old Democrat was never filed with the secretary of state’s office, though, and he remained a House member until he died of cancer less than a week later, on Jan. 13.
During the session’s closing hours this past Thursday, Gibbs’ only child, 43-year-old Karl Gibbs, stood at the front of the House chamber with his wife, son and mother, put his hand on a Bible and took the oath of office to represent District 36. It’s the seat his father had held since January 1993, in parts of Clay, Lowndes and Monroe counties.
Rep. Karl Gibbs, D-West Point, received a standing ovation from his new colleagues.
“I’m very excited,” he told reporters a few minutes later. “I grew up with this … watching my father and helping him do various things.”
Mississippi lawmakers engage in tough debates over policy issues. But during the past few months, a series of tragedies, including the death of Gibbs, caused them to set aside political differences, if only for a few hours or days, to help each other grieve.
“It is a family down here,” said House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton. “We come from different backgrounds and races and parties, but we do pull together in those times of tragedy.”
When all the seats are filled, the Mississippi House has 122 members and the Senate has 52. It’s not unusual for one or two lawmakers to become ill each year — but it is out of the ordinary for multiple members of the Legislature to die within a matter of months.
— Sen. Bennie Turner, D-West Point, died Nov. 27 at age 64, after an extended illness. He had served at the Capitol 20 years. His daughter and law partner won a special election to fill his seat in District 16, which covers all of Clay County and parts of Lowndes, Oktibbeha and Noxubee counties. Sen. Angela Turner, D-West Point, took her oath Jan. 23.
— Sen. Alice Harden, D-Jackson, died Dec. 6 at age 64, also after an extended illness. She made history in 1987 by becoming the first black woman to win a seat in the Mississippi Senate. Sen. Sollie Norwood, D-Jackson, took his oath March 4, after winning a special election in District 28, entirely in Hinds County.
— Rep. Joe Gardner, D-Batesville, died of a heart attack Feb. 4 at age 68. He had served in the House since 2007. A special election runoff April 16 will determine who will succeed Gardner in District 11, in parts of Panola and Tate counties.
— Rep. Jessica Upshaw, R-Diamondhead, died March 24 in Mendenhall, of what the local sheriff said appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot. She had represented District 95, in parts of Hancock and Harrison counties, since January 2004. Gov. Phil Bryant has set a May 28 special election, with a June 18 runoff, if needed.
The fathers of two House members died mid-session, and the young niece of one was killed in a wreck. Two House members were hospitalized. Each time, lawmakers bowed their heads and prayed together.
“It has been a very unique and difficult year,” Gunn said. “I talked to one of the members, a Democratic member, who had been here 30 years. He said in 30 years, he has never seen a session filled with as much personal tragedy.”