JACKSON—With a hug from former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood stepped up to a microphone and proclaimed victory in his quest for the Democratic nomination for governor last night.
Hood, a Democrat who has prosecuted a number of corporations during his time as attorney general, made a vow to the crowd gathered before him at Duling Hall in Fondren.
"What I've done as attorney general is I've focused on illegal corruption. ... What I want to do is see us focus on the legal corruption," he said.
The Chickasaw County native cited the influence of corporations in politics and at the Mississippi Legislature, where lawmakers have shielded themselves from the Mississippi Public Records Act.
Hood, who has raised $1.6 million this year so far, partly with the help of corporate contributions, won the Democratic primary with 69% of the vote on Tuesday over a long list of candidates, including outgoing Hinds Country District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith, whom he prosecuted several times in recent years.
Waller Pushes Reeves Into Runoff
Several miles down State Street in downtown Jackson, Republican candidate for governor Bill Waller celebrated a different sort of victory: successfully pushing frontrunner Tate Reeves, who has served as lieutenant governor for the past eight years, into a runoff.
In a three-way contest that eliminated Mississippi House Rep. Robert Foster, Waller garnered 33% of the vote. Reeves netted 48.9% of the vote—just shy of the 50%-plus-one vote he would have needed to win his party's nomination outright.
Still, Waller said, that meant a majority of the state's GOP voters did not want to nominate the man who served as lieutenant governor, and presided over the Mississippi Senate, over the past eight years. So far this year in the Republican primary, Reeves has spent $5.7 million; Waller only spent $1.1 million.
"I think they're going to rise up, and we're going to take control of this state," Waller said. "I think we need to start supporting teachers instead of criticizing them."
He was referring to Reeves, who rebuffed teachers' groups that demanded more funding for public schools and a significant increase in teacher pay during this year's legislative session. After the House passed a $4,000 teacher-pay raise in this year's legislative session, Reeves blocked it in the Senate, allowing only a $1,500 pay raise. Teachers would have needed double that to keep up with inflation since the last pay raise in 2014.
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At the same time, though, Reeves and other Republican leaders helped sneak through a $3-million increase for the state's private-school-voucher program. It allows some parents of children with learning disabilities to use public funds to send their kids to private schools, but a PEER review found significant problems with the program last year. Many of the schools the program pays special-needs children to attend, for example, do not even have special-needs facilities.
Empower Mississippi advocated for the voucher program. That group has donated $30,000 to Reeves since 2016. Its president, Grant Callen, also donated $500 to Reeves' campaign this year. In 2016, Empower named Reeves "Education Reformer of the Year."
Targeting Reeves Over School Voucher Tactics
During a speech at the Neshoba County Fair on Aug. 1, Waller criticized Reeves for the tactics he and other GOP leaders, like House Speaker Philip Gunn, used to get the $3 million for voucher funds passed. Legislators had already balked at the idea of increasing funds for the voucher program earlier in the session. But on the penultimate day of the session, Reeves helped slip it into an unrelated funding bill just minutes before legislators were set to vote.
Most lawmakers only found out about the funds after the vote. Republicans and Democrats began changing their votes in an effort to quash the voucher funds, but GOP leaders, including Reeves, quashed the rebellion.
Using dubious legislative tricks to pass unpopular legislation at the whim of donors, Hood said at his victory rally on Tuesday night, would come to an end under his stewardship.
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"We've got to take back control of our government. And I believe with your help we can do that as governor of the state of Mississippi," he said. "In this campaign, we're going to expose ... all of those giveaways and let the people see what's been happening here in Jackson."
Hood said he wants to stop lawmakers from accepting corporate donations during the legislative session. Opening up the public records act, he said, would allow Mississippians to "know who's wining and dining (lawmakers) and who is sending them emails."
'Make Mississippi Roads Great Again'
Waller and Hood both vowed to use the governor's office to push for a teacher-pay raise each year until Mississippi teachers make as much as those in neighboring states. Within the first 100 days, Hood told supporters, he wants to sign legislation bringing pre-k programs to every Mississippi family across the state.
Hood also took aim at Reeves for an incident in 2017. Even as Reeves blocked increases in funding to repair crumbling roads and bridges, the Mississippi Department of Transportation began work on paving a private road that leads into the lieutenant governor's private community, using $2 million in state funds. The Clarion-Ledger reported that MDOT claimed it did so under pressure from other parts of the state government, though Reeves denied any connection and MDOT halted the project.
"One of the things for sure we're going to do on roads, we're going to build public roads—not private driveways," Hood said in his speech on Tuesday evening.
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Waller has made his plans to repair the state's roads and bridges a centerpiece of his campaign. At campaign events, he often wears a red hat styled like those at Donald Trump rallies, with the words, "Make Mississippi Roads Great Again."
In Waller's campaign office where he held the election party Tuesday night, a poster on the wall showed a map of the state of Mississippi, with markings in every county of the state showing dilapidated roads and bridges he plans to have repaired if elected governor.
'We Need Strong Hospitals Instead of Closed Hospitals'
Hood and Waller both said they want to expand Medicaid, though Waller uses the word "reform" instead of "expand" to distance it from the Affordable Care Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010.
Reeves opposes the expansion, which would bring health-care access to about 300,000 more Mississippians. He refers to it as "Obamacare expansion." Waller and Hood say it is the only way to save Mississippi's rural hospitals, many of which are in danger of closing their doors. Five rural emergency rooms have already closed across the state in recent years.
"I think we need strong hospitals instead of closed hospitals," Waller said Tuesday night.
Medical groups have given tens of thousands to Reeves, Waller and Hood in the governor's race this year.
At his election-night watch party, Reeves said he remains confident of victory.
"I am totally and completely confident that, number one, we are going to have a conservative as the Republican nominee for governor. I can tell you tonight that I am going to be the Republican nominee for governor of Mississippi," Reeves said. "And I can tell you tonight—we are going to beat Jim Hood in November."
GOP Runoffs on Aug. 27
Reeves and Waller go head to head in a Republican party runoff on Aug. 27—the first time that has happened in a GOP primary for governor since 1991. In 2011, then-Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant won the Republican nomination for governor outright with 59% of the vote.
The Aug. 27 primary runoffs are open to any registered voter. However, if you voted in one party’s primary in yesterday’s election, you cannot switch parties and vote in the other runoff.
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“If you voted in the Republican primary yesterday, you cannot vote in the Democratic primary in three weeks and vice versa,” Hinds County Republican Party Chairman Pete Perry told the Jackson Free Press today. “If you did not vote, you can vote in whatever primary.”
After voters decide, the GOP nominee will face Hood on Nov. 5. Current Mississippi Treasurer Lynn Fitch and Madison attorney Andy Taggart also go head-to-head in a runoff in the GOP race for attorney general on that day, as well as runoffs in an number of Jackson-area legislative and Hinds County races.
Mississippians must register at least 30 days before an election in order to be eligible to vote and must show an accepted form of photo ID at the voting booth, a list of which is available on the Secretary of State website. County circuit clerks across the state offer all residents free photo IDs that they can use to vote.
Follow State Reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Send tips to [email protected]. Donna Ladd contributed to this report.