At campaign rallies, former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Bill Waller, Jr. wears a red baseball cap designed to mimic Donald Trump's iconic "Make America Great Again" hats. Unlike his fellows in the GOP primary, though, Waller's focus is not on the culture wars that have animated the party for some 40 years. His baseball cap has another message: "Make Mississippi Roads Great Again."
"We're going to get the roads and bridges straight, because you have to have them," Waller said at a Marion County political forum in June.
In that county alone, he pointed out, 12 bridges and multiple county and state roads are closed due to disrepair. In recent years, Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, Waller's main rival in the election, has repeatedly refused to pass legislation to increase infrastructure funding, preferring massive tax breaks, including $260 million a year for out-of-state corporations, instead. Last year, Reeves did agree during a special legislative session to establish a state lottery, and to direct the revenue it generates toward infrastructure.
Waller's father, William Waller Sr., served as governor in the 1970s. Like his son, he was known for focusing on bread-and-butter issues, having jettisoned the racial politicking of the 1960s and '70s.
In a break from the Dixiecrats of the past, Gov. Waller used his time in office to advance the rights of black Mississippians by, for instance, appointing African Americans to key cabinet, board and judicial positions and killing the racist Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission that had used its power to investigate, intimidate and harass black civil rights leaders. Mostly, though, Waller Sr. focused on improving state highways, and combating drug abuse, and bringing more jobs to the state.
"Bill Waller is a redneck who has felt a hoe in his hands," Waller Sr. would say during 1971 campaign stops.
His son's own plan to "put hoes in the hands" of state workers to improve the roads may be the main item on his agenda, but he also talks a lot about another issue that keeps many Mississippians up at night: health care.
GOP Split on 'Medicaid Reform'
Since the Affordable Care Act's implementation in 2013, Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves' resistance to President Obama's signature health-care law has caused the State to forego billions in federal funds that could have been used to expand Medicaid. That decision has left about 300,000 Mississippians with no plausible health-care options, and it has also imperiled already-struggling rural hospitals that would see a boost if more Mississippians had access to Medicaid.
Since 2015, five hospitals in the state have closed due to financial stress, and 31 others are endangered, meaning both jobs and public safety are at risk. One of those is the Marion General Hospital in Marion County—the only emergency room within a 40-minute drive.
"We have a plan," Waller said, pointing to one drawn up by the Mississippi Hospital Association.
During a May press conference, MHA unveiled a proposal called "Mississippi Cares" that, like Medicaid expansion, would insure around 300,000 more adults in the state, ages 19 to 64 who earn up to 138% of the federal poverty level.
"This is not Medicaid expansion. This is Medicaid reform," MHA President Timothy Moore told the audience, using the term Republicans who support expanding Medicaid prefer in order to distance themselves from Obama.
The proposal is for a private-public partnership between the state, government, hospitals and plan members that "emphasizes personal responsibility and health-care consumerism." Patients would pay $20 a month in premiums and $100 for non-emergency use of a hospital emergency room.
In a January interview, Mississippi Rep. Robert Foster, another GOP candidate in the race for governor, told the Jackson Free Press that he, too, supports expanding Medicaid under the banner of "Medicaid reform," but with potential work requirements added in.
Earlier this year, though, GOP frontrunner Reeves made clear that he has no intention of agreeing to "Obamacare expansion," as he derisively calls it.
In the January interview with the Jackson Free Press, though, Foster explained why he thinks that's the wrong approach.
"All the people who work in Mississippi are paying federal taxes, and our dollars are being redistributed to other states, and we're not getting the benefit here," Foster said. "The people contributing should be receiving what they're helping pay everybody else to use.
"We're sticking our heads in the sand because we don't like the policy of Obamacare. I think it's bad policy. The ACA is bad policy that has a lot of flaws, but it is the law of the land. And Mississippi is going to have to do what is in our best interests until that law is changed in Washington."
At the July 23 televised Republican debate, all three candidates clashed over the issue with Waller and Foster once again reiterating their positions. Reeves declared that he was the only conservative on the stage and repeated his opposition to "Obamacare expansion."
Foster shot back, saying that while he thinks "Obamacare" was a bad thing, Reeves' rejection of billions of dollars to bring health care to more Mississippians is out-of-touch.
"It's hard for somebody like the lieutenant governor to understand this because he's been on the government rolls the last 16 years of his life and had everything handed to him by the taxpayers in Mississippi," Foster said.
Waller said the MHA plan for "Medicaid reform" would be fiscally responsible.
"There is no cost to the state," Waller said. "The hospitals have agreed to underwrite it, and what the participants pay will fund the program."
"I do not believe it would be no cost to the state. That's a fairy-tale belief," he claimed.
'Fight for the Poor'
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, the leading Democratic candidate for governor, was the first candidate to call for Medicaid expansion when he announced his campaign in his hometown of Houston last fall.
There, he sharply criticized the state's Republican leadership's rejection of federal dollars for Medicaid expansion that the Affordable Care Act offered. Their decision, he said, accelerated the closure of Mississippi's rural hospitals.
"We had an emergency room here in Houston my whole life, and now that emergency room is closed," he said. "In 1940, we had better emergency health care in rural Mississippi than we have right now. That's insane."
Trace Regional Hospital in Houston closed its doors in 2014, making it among five of the state's rural hospitals that have closed since 2010.
Losing rural hospitals means losing economic opportunities, Hood said, a point that Waller would also make in Marion County last month.
Like his Republican counterparts, Hood invokes religion while arguing for policy, though not typically on the sort of "traditional values" issues that animate them.
"Jesus taught us to fight for the poor and the elderly and the widows and the children—the least among us," he said. "This is the Mississippi I will fight for—hard-working folks who love family, care for each other and want to build a better life."
Two of his Democratic opponents, Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith and Jackson native Velesha Williams, have also called for Medicaid expansion in Mississippi.
"We can't turn down help that will help Mississippians," Williams told the Jackson Free Press in May.
Robert Shuler Smith echoed the sentiment in an interview with The Clarion-Ledger on July 16. "There should be some expansion to cover people who are not covered," he said.
Dems Talk Mental Health
Hood's campaign promises include a vow to overhaul the state's mental health-care system, which languishes behind most of the country. Even so, as attorney general, he is defending the State in federal court against charges that its health-care system is discriminatory and inadequate.
Throughout June, Jackson-based U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves heard arguments in United States v. Mississippi, in which the U.S. government is suing the State for failing to ensure the state's mental-health system upholds the civil rights of those with mental illnesses. The U.S. Department of Justice cited not only the long jail stays, but the over-hospitalization of people who could receive effective treatment in their own communities.
In closing arguments on July 1, Jim Shelson, an attorney for Hood's office, denied the charges on behalf of the State of Mississippi
"There was no evidence that anyone was unnecessarily institutionalized," Shelson said.
During the month-long trial, though, the U.S. government brought in witnesses who have worked in the state's mental health system who testified to the contrary.
When the JFP asked Hood communications director Margaret Ann Morgan why Hood chose to defend the State, she pointed to Hood's position that his job requires him to do so. She also noted Hood's press release from Aug. 2016, shortly after the DOJ filed those charges.
The Jackson Free Press reached out to Hood's office Wednesday morning for comment. His communications director, Margaret Ann Morgan, pointed to an August 2016 press release they released the day the Justice Department first filed the lawsuit.
"It's our obligation as Christians and people of faith to take care of those who are unable to take care of themselves," Hood said at the time. "It's time for each of us to move forward to better fulfill that fundamental responsibility."
In an interview in April, Williams also brought up mental health as a core issue she would want to address.
"We have to think about our physical, mental and spiritual health, I believe. That's the wholeness of the person," she said. "I used to receive, when I worked at Jackson State, grant funding from the Department of Mental Health. I understand that we have citizens with real serious mental health issues. And like anything, it's a scale. You have some people who have health care, but it doesn't cover mental-health treatment."
'Disparity' in Education
During that interview, Williams also talked about education. If elected, she would fight to end educational disparities, which fall along racial and economic lines throughout Mississippi. In the mostly black Delta particularly, children go to poorly funded schools with meager resources. While the state, which has some of the lowest teacher pay in the nation, is struggling to retain teachers thanks to an ongoing shortage, it is far worse in Delta counties.
"The range in which the disparity exists from school district to schools within the district is alarming," Williams told the Jackson Free Press. "You have some schools that don't have appropriate books, don't have books or have missing pages with books. My kids were fortunate enough to have two sets of books, one set for the classroom and one to keep at home. We need to put all our kids on a level learning field."
Hood has also called for higher teacher pay, as have Foster and Waller. During the July 23 debate, both men called for a teacher pay raise every year until Mississippi teacher pay is competitive with surrounding states in the southeast. When asked where they think starting pay should begin, Waller and Foster both said $40,000; Waller said the Legislature could raise pay to that level starting next year.
Reeves said that number was unreasonable because it would cost $260 million. That is exactly the amount of money out-of-state corporations save every year in the state, thanks to tax cuts Reeves pushed through in 2016.
In March, Foster voted for a $1,500 raise, but criticized it for being too low—especially considering the fact that Reeves and other GOP leaders helped push through a $3 million increase for private vouchers.
Reeves, though, boasted about his record on teacher pay. Since he came to office nearly eight years ago, he said, teachers have seen their pay increase by $8,000.
In the Democratic race, Smith told The Parents' Campaign in a questionnaire that he would consider vouchers on a limited basis.
"Most likely I would consider vouchers under extraordinary circumstances, such as bullying and other areas that require such alternatives," he wrote. "However, we must fully fund our schools to address the needs of all students. We would evaluate on a case by case basis under certain circumstances."
Foster has sought to carve out his own spot in the Republican race on the issue of education.
"As the only Republican candidate with kids who attend public school, I am committed to putting education first—ahead of politics," he wrote on Facebook on July 18. "As governor, I will fight to remove burdens that complicate teachers' jobs and provide more competitive salaries for those educating Mississippi's future workforce."
'Ready to Work'
In mid-July, Reeves unveiled his first major policy proposal as a candidate: A $100-million plan to make Mississippi a "Ready to Work" state that includes $75 million for career-training programs at colleges, would cap college-tuition costs for some students pursuing bachelor's degrees, and bring computer-science classes to K-12 classrooms across the state.
The candidate's plan would make Mississippi eligible for grants under the federal Ready to Work initiative, which helps long-term unemployed people gain job training skills for employment. It involves collaborations between employers, nonprofit organizations and federal job training programs.
"We need the next generation of Mississippi workers to be equipped to take on any job," the Republican candidate for governor told a crowd at Jones College on July 16. "With the right training, I believe Mississippians could do that job."
The proposal includes $1 million to help high-school students earn more college credits and industry credentials; $20 million "to help families get up on their feet and ready to work by dealing with many of the issues that our neighbors face today like childcare and transportation"; and $1.5 million to bring more computer science classes to K-12 schools.
In an email to supporters the next day, Waller linked workforce training to the state's teacher shortage crisis and pay. "The future of Mississippi's economy starts with having an educated workforce, and that's why we must increase teacher salaries, and not just in election years," he wrote. "We've got to bring more job training skills to high school students who don't go to college so they're prepared to get a good-paying job and start a career."
The 'Heartbeat Law'
Most of the time, Reeves prefers to focus on so-called "social issues" that he can use to fan the flames of the culture war in his favor. With his bet on evangelical voters, he has made his support for the new fetal heartbeat law that bans abortions after a heartbeat becomes detectable a centerpiece of his campaign. At the Marion County event, he thanked area State Sen. Angela Burkes Hill for sponsoring the law, which bans nearly all abortions at six weeks.
Reeves did not mention that state Rep. Robert Foster, one of his opponents in the race for governor, had introduced a nearly identical "heartbeat bill" in January, around the same time Hill did.
The House passed Foster's bill, with no exceptions for rape, incest or cases of severe fetal deformity.
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In a Jan. 30 interview with the Jackson Free Press, Foster said he considers all abortion "an evil that our society is going to have to answer for"; even in a case where a fetus is non-viable and possibly suffering excruciating pain, he said, nature should be allowed to take its course.
"If that baby is born and doesn't survive, then that's natural," he said. "That way of the baby passing to me is a more humane way that going in and us killing it. You don't take somebody who is old and then just go and kill that person because they're old and they have pains."
Foster's six-week abortion ban is not the one that became law; the Senate also passed Hill's, and Reeves, who in his role as lieutenant governor also serves as president of the State Senate, convinced Republicans to rally around the Senate bill instead.
Hood is defending the heartbeat law in federal court. After U.S. District Court Carlton Reeves struck it down as unconstitutional, Hood appealed it to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, where it awaits trial. Hood calls himself "pro-life," but has shied away from taking a solid position on the six-week ban.
Mississippi voters will go to the polls to choose party primary candidates on Aug. 6.
Follow State Reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman.
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