JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant's inaugural speech Tuesday combined poetic flourishes with recognition of the state's most intractable issues — a lagging education system, a struggling economy and one of the nation's highest teenage pregnancy rates.
In a state deeply affected in recent years by Hurricane Katrina and Mississippi River flooding, the 57-year-old Republican used "rising together" as his inaugural theme and said "rising water forced us to higher ground" and made the state stronger.
While he didn't get lost in a thicket of policy proposals, Bryant said every resident should have the chance to be gainfully employed, every person should have access to a good education, every child should be born into a "mature, two-parent family" and every person should know that tax dollars are properly spent.
"If we are to rise together, we must do so with the inherent characteristics of Mississippi. We are a people of character who value hard work and treasure loyalty to our families, state and country. And, as the prophet Isaiah described so long ago, we are a people of faith who 'will soar on wings like eagles' because our trust is in the Lord," Bryant said moments after putting his hand on his grandmother's Bible to take the oath of office.
Bryant moved up to the governorship after one term as lieutenant governor, more than a decade as state auditor and nearly five years as a state House member from Rankin County. Last year he defeated Democrat Johnny DuPree, the Hattiesburg mayor who was the first black candidate to win a major-party nomination for Mississippi governor.
The new governor delivered his 18-minute speech with his typical easygoing confidence — part Rotary Club emcee, part classroom teacher.
He got choked up as he thanked Deborah, his wife of 35 years, and mentioned their children, his brothers, his late parents and his in-laws. He also mentioned his mentor, the late Kirk Fordice, who was elected in 1991 and served two terms as Mississippi's first Republican governor since Reconstruction. It was Fordice who plucked Bryant from the House and made him state auditor when Democrat Steve Patterson resigned the position in 1996.
Absent from Bryant's inaugural speech were any mentions of some of the campaign issues that endeared him to tea party conservatives — requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls, which voters approved as a state constitutional amendment the day Bryant was elected governor this past November; allowing law enforcement officers to check people's immigration status during routine traffic stops, which Bryant unsuccessfully tried to push into law in 2011; and defining life as beginning at fertilization, which was in a proposed constitutional amendment that 58 percent of voters rejected on the November ballot.
Each of the issues caused sharp divisions in public opinion last year, and Bryant supported all three, even saying before the November election that "Satan wins" if the life-at-fertilization ballot initiative loses. Days after the initiative failed, Bryant didn't rule out the possibility that legislators could revive the issue in 2012 but said: "The people of the state of Mississippi have spoken on that issue, and one thing I've learned to do is listen to the people."
Rather than divide and conquer, Bryant used his first speech to focus on uniting and rising.
Former Gov. William Winter, a Democrat who served from January 1980 to January 1984, attended Bryant's inauguration and liked what he heard.
"He covered a lot of the most important issues that confront us in this state. And I was glad to see him call for a unified approach," said Winter, who has worked the past two decades on state and national racial reconciliation efforts.
John Arledge, a former Fordice spokesman, helped write Bryant's speech, but Bryant said it was important that he be the principal author of his own first message as governor. He said he'd wake up in the middle of the night, thinking of what he wanted to say.
"I wanted it to come from my heart. I wanted it to be my words and my values," Bryant said to reporters after the speech.
The speech, delivered in a crowded state House chamber, garnered praise from a wide spectrum of state lawmakers — veterans and newcomers, black and white, Democrat and Republican.
"It was just inspirational. I don't know what to say except that it brought tears to my eyes," said freshman Sen. Will Longwitz, a white Republican from Madison. "It was about Mississippi. It was about government, it was about politics and policy, but it was mostly about us."
Rep. Rufus Straughter, a black Democrat from Belzoni, praised Bryant's message.
"All the issues he talked about were issues that are near to my heart — education, teenage pregnancy. Those are things that are big to our community," said Straughter, who has served in the House since 1996. "As a matter of fact, we do that at our church now, talk about these kinds of issues. Our community understands that you've got to be responsible for decisions that you make."
Bryant's predecessor, Republican two-term Gov. Haley Barbour, wouldn't respond to questions about the speech. On the way in, Barbour had said he wanted the day's focus to be on Bryant.
As Barbour and his wife, Marsha, left the House chamber, a bank of TV cameras awaited down a marble hallway, behind security barricades. The Barbours turned left and slipped out a side stairway, back into private life.
Associated Press writer Jeff Amy contributed to this report.