JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — First-term Democratic state Rep. Jay Hughes of Oxford announced last week that he is running for Mississippi lieutenant governor in 2019, saying the state needs to improve public education, highways and mental health services and create a lottery.
Hughes , 54, said current state leaders are not squarely facing the state's challenges.
"I believe that commonsense problem solving is what we need a lot more of, instead of spin and political posturing," Hughes told a few dozen people during a campaign kickoff at a Jackson hotel.
"Mississippi problems are not miraculously cured and fixed by ignoring them.... The first step in solving a problem is admitting there is one," he said. "And I'm tired of hearing career politicians in Mississippi claim that everything — everything — is great for jobs, economy, food on the table, college students not really leaving, roads and bridges are fine. They aren't."
Hughes is the first candidate to announce for what will be an open seat. Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves is limited to two terms and is preparing to run for governor.
The lieutenant governor presides over the state Senate and has considerable influence over which bills become law.
Republican Delbert Hosemann, the third-term secretary of state, is widely considered another possible candidate for lieutenant governor.
Republicans hold seven of eight statewide offices in Mississippi. The last person elected lieutenant governor as a Democrat was Amy Tuck, in 1999. She switched to the Republican Party in late 2002 and won a second term the next year.
Hughes is an attorney and developer and served as an Oxford alderman before winning a House seat in 2015. He's also a U.S. Army veteran.
During the campaign kickoff, he spoke about growing up poor in south Louisiana and east Texas. He said his biggest influence was the grandfather he called Poose, who hand-dug sewer ditches for a city water department and taught him to work hard.
"I didn't get my values from some national political party or a cable news program," said Hughes, who was joined on stage by his wife, Cris, and their daughter, Patricia. "I got them from my parents and grandparents at home, at church and at the school of hard knocks."
Democratic former Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove said after the event that he is backing Hughes because he believes Hughes has joined Democratic Sen. Hob Bryan of Amory as one of the most vocal supporters of public schools.
"Jay Hughes has been a consistent voice for improving and investing in education," said Musgrove, who served two terms in the state Senate and one as lieutenant governor before serving as governor from 2000 to 2004.
Answering questions after his speech, Hughes said he used to consider himself a Republican and has long voted based on which candidate he prefers, not a party label. He said he doesn't know when he started considering himself a Democrat, but he has been elected to both offices under that label.
Hughes has been a frequent critic of Republican leaders in the Mississippi House and is known for frequent social media posts giving his own ideas about education funding and other issues.
State GOP chairman Lucien Smith said in a statement: "Jay Hughes is an Oxford liberal best known at the Capitol for not supporting gun rights, running from legislation to protect the unborn, and generally achieving nothing except getting his name in the papers. Mississippi voters should reject him just as they've rejected other liberals like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama."
In 2016, Hughes sued Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn for using a computer-generated voice to read bills aloud in the House chamber. Reading aloud is a common filibuster tactic used by opponents to issues being debated, and House Democrats forced readings in March 2016 because they thought their ideas were being ignored by the Republican supermajority.
Hughes said in the lawsuit that Gunn had violated the Mississippi Constitution by setting the machine to read so quickly that the bills could not be understood. Hughes also said lawmakers were calling it a "demon chipmunk" voice. The state Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that it has no power to settle a dispute over how the Legislature operates.