JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A freshman lawmaker from the Mississippi Delta switched from Democrat to Republican on Tuesday, saying his beliefs on the budget and social issues are more in line with the GOP.
Rep. Jason White, an attorney from the Holmes County town of West, was elected in November 2011 and took office in January 2012. He holds the seat for District 48, which includes parts of Attala, Carroll, Choctaw, Holmes, Humphreys and Leake counties.
White said he originally ran as a Democrat because local politicians typically do so. But he said that after he got to the Capitol, he didn't fit in with the party.
"What I found during my first year in office is that I aligned much more with the Republicans than with the Democrats. I'm a conservative. I've never hidden that fact, I don't hide it now and I didn't hide it in 2011 when I campaigned for this seat," White said during a news conference in the Capitol rotunda. He was joined by House Speaker Philip Gunn, Gov. Phil Bryant and more than two dozen other Republican elected officials.
"The Democrats in the House weren't interested in dealing with my conservative approach and agenda," White said. "And, frankly, I'll just say this: I wasn't interested in perpetuating the agenda that the House Democrats have used and that has failed for so long for the state of Mississippi."
Someone in the crowd let out a long, low whistle in response.
In the November 2011 election, Republicans took control of the Mississippi House for the first time since Reconstruction. With White's switch, the GOP now holds 65 seats in the 122-member House.
Gunn called White "a Godly man, a Christian man."
"He has convictions and he acts on those convictions," Gunn said.
A few Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Jim Evans of Jackson, stood to the side of the rotunda and watched White's news conference. Moments later, Evans said White deceived voters by running in one party and switching to another.
"If he's conservative enough to be with that right-wing Mississippi Republican Party, then he was already a right-wing Republican and he lied to the people in November," Evans said.
Rep. Bobby Moak of Bogue Chitto, the House Democratic leader, said he got to know White in 2011 "when he asked for help from Democrats."
"We were happy to help because we believed he shared our values and wanted to come to Jackson to work for Mississippi's working families," Moak said. "Unfortunately, he's spent the past year in total service to Republican leadership and out-of-state corporate interests. I'm sure his constituents are just as confused by his switch as we are."
White was elected to succeed Rep. Mary Ann Stevens of West, a conservative Democrat who had been in the House since 1981. She didn't run in 2011.
White lives in Holmes County, which is 83 percent black, according to the 2010 Census. His current legislative district, stretching across six counties, had a 44 percent black voting age population in 2010.
Mississippi history shows that districts with higher portions of black voters are more likely to elect Democrats, while districts with lower percentages of black voters are more likely to elect Republicans. White Democrats typically fare well in districts with black population in the low 30 percentages to low 50 percentages, while black Democrats typically are more likely to be elected in districts with higher percentages than that.
Lawmakers redrew state House and Senate districts this year to account for population shifts in the past decade. Part of White's current district was combined with part of the current district of Democratic Rep. Bennett Malone of Carthage. The newly configured district, which will be used in 2015, has a 27.5 percent black voting age population — an easier district for a Republican to win.
Asked Tuesday if the new configuration of his district affected his decision to switch parties, White replied: "It did not."