HATTIESBURG, Miss.—About 50 people showed up at a venue that would seat 1,200 on Wednesday night to hear Republican candidates explain why voters should elect them as Mississippi's next attorney general—the state's chief legal officer who holds the power to bring or defend against lawsuits on behalf of the state.
In the mostly hollow auditorium at the William Carey University campus in Hattiesburg, longtime state GOP lawyer Andy Taggart debated Mississippi Rep. Mark Baker of Brandon. The two often found common ground in their shared criticisms of the current Democratic attorney general, Jim Hood, who is running for governor this year.
Both men specifically targeted Hood for criticism for his defense of Mississippi's recently passed six-week abortion ban, known as the "heartbeat bill," in federal court. Unlike Democrats and liberal activists who were angry that Hood defended it at all, though, Baker and Taggart criticized him for not defending it with enough vigor. Baker said Hood was "AWOL on the heartbeat bill" because he did not personally appear in court while State attorneys defended it last month.
"He doesn't show up at all in the court hearing, the court hearing goes against the state of Mississippi, and he raises his hand and says, 'Well, I'll appeal it,'" said Taggart, a long-time Republican in Mississippi who was chief of staff to former Gov. Kirk Fordice. "Well, thank you very much. Where were you yesterday is what I want to know."
U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves struck down the six-week ban late last month, but Hood is appealing it, along with a 15-week abortion ban the Legislature passed last year, to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a more conservative judicial panel based in New Orleans. If he becomes attorney general, Baker said he will make "the rights of the unborn" a top priority.
Fitch and Riley-Collins Skip Debate
Taggart and Baker's other GOP rival for the nomination, Mississippi Treasurer Lynn Fitch, did not show up for the forum. Though she made an appearance in Hattiesburg on Tuesday, she spent Wednesday in north Mississippi at the DeSoto County Economic Development Council. On Monday, Fitch Chief of Staff Michelle Williams told the Jackson Free Press that they had informed the forum's organizers months ago that she had a scheduling conflict.
When he was introducing the candidates, Mississippi Gulf Coast Federalist Society co-founder Russell Nobile said his organization, a conservative group that arranged the debate, invited Fitch and Jennifer Riley-Collins, the only Democrat in the race. Riley-Collins declined to participate early on, he said, but Fitch initially agreed.
"We actually rescheduled this event from our preferred date before the end of the school year at the request of Treasurer Lynn Fitch's campaign," Nobile said. "We are disappointed that she has chosen not to come after she confirmed the date, and we properly announced the event."
Williams said Fitch will not take part in another south Mississippi forum with Baker and Taggart that the Mississippi College Republicans are hosting in McComb on Friday.
Nationally, the Federalist Society works to install right wing justices on courts, and backed each member of the five-justice conservative majority that currently holds a majority on the U.S. Supreme Court. With President Donald Trump's appointment of the Federalist Society-backed Justice Brett Kavanaugh, abortion rights advocates fear the court could strike down Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that declared abortion care a constitutional right.
Baker: Mississippi Law Protects Anti-LGBT Adoption Agencies
The two candidates who showed up Wednesday night highlighted their dedication to "religious liberty." Baker invoked his support in the Legislature for Senate Bill 2681 and House Bill 1523—bills the Legislature passed and the governor signed into law in 2014 and 2016, respectively, that allow business owners to refuse to serve LGBT people if they cite a religious objection. They also allow for other religious objections, such as those based on beliefs about premarital sex.
Baker pointed to Michigan's attorney general, who earlier this year settled a lawsuit in which two lesbian couples charged that faith-based adoption agencies that receive state funds refused to allow them to adopt because of their sexuality. The attorney general agreed to disallow organizations that receive state funds from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.
"The attorney general said, no, we're going to settle that ACLU lawsuit, and now you religious organizations, if you're going to engage in adoption and foster-care services and adoption in Michigan, you're going to have to check your religious beliefs at the door," Baker said.
"Why is that important? Mississippi has just such a law—in fact it has two, and I voted for both of them," he continued, referring to SB 2681 and HB 1523. "We have to make sure we have an attorney general that is going to stand up and say, 'No, we're not going to make religious organizations check their religious beliefs at the door for them to engage in such services in the state of Mississippi.'"
Taggart, too, spoke of the importance of protecting "religious liberty," and praised the Legislature for its efforts on it. As they spoke, two flagpoles with gold-colored crosses atop them, one with a Christian flag, towered over them. William Carey is a Baptist University with a conservative campus culture.
'The Oppressed Are Conservatives'
At another point in the debate, a student asked about campus free speech, referring to a belief among conservatives that their views and ideas are silenced on college campuses nationwide.
"The oppressed are conservatives that are trying to express speech freely on college campuses," Baker said.
On Monday, though, FIRE, an organization focused on defending the rights of college students, published a report claiming that Rutgers University in New Jersey violated the Constitution when it defunded its student newspaper, the Tagrum.
Since 2017, Rutgers' Conservative Union has led a #DefundTheTagrum campaign, claiming the paper published "fake news"—a campaign triggered by a Tagrum report revealing that a member of the Conservative Union had created flyers that appeared nearly identical to flyers distributed by American Vanguard, a white supremacist group.
Neither Baker nor Taggart mentioned the incident, focusing alluding to alleged incidents of college campuses discriminating against conservatives. In recent years, some campuses have refused to allow right-wing provocateurs like Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannapolos, Charles Murray and "alt-right" figures to speak on campus due to student outcry and fears that violence might break out.
The First Amendment of the United States, Taggart said at the debate Wednesday night, is "on the side of free speech."
"The idea that the exercise of First Amendment rights somehow ought not to ruffle anybody's feathers or somehow be offensive to people or cause people to trigger or feel like they're not in a safe zone—ladies and gentlemen, that is why we have the First Amendment," Taggart said. "It is not designed to allow me to say things that make people happy all the time."
Tort Reform and 'Jackpot Justice'
When Nobile asked the candidates to name the experiences they believe qualifies them for the office, Taggart pointed to his time working for Republican governors, including former Gov. Fordice, a controversial figure whom he joked needed a lot of legal representation; former Gov. Haley Barbour; and current Gov. Phil Bryant. Representing the governor is part of the job, he said—a thinly veiled swipe at Hood's often contentious relationship with the Bryant administration.
But while Taggart was representing governors, Baker said, "I was in the trenches." He highlighted his work in the Legislature to pass conservative laws, like a "tort reform" law in the early 2000s to limit lawsuits and payouts against corporations and for medical malpractice.
In the early 2000s, the primary response to critics of tort reform also centered on "greedy trial attorneys," although that was not the whole story, as the Jackson Free Press reported extensively at the time.
Then, national business lobbies also pushed for extensive limits to lawsuits and payouts, and tort reform has long been a way to limit the amount of money trial lawyers in Mississippi and beyond could contribute to Democratic candidates. It was a leveling of the playing field, of sorts, with the GOP, which has deep coffers among wealthy corporations on the other side of lawsuits, and helps fund the campaigns of pro-business judges in Mississippi. Tort reform was also a way to demonize candidates who did not support the lawsuit limits.
Though Taggart did not discuss the 2003 tort reform law on Wednesday night, he has written about it in a popular book about Mississippi politics.
"The pursuit of tort reform became the most emotional and influential wedge issue Mississippi politics had spawned in thirty years, and it aided Republicans by separating business campaign contributions from Democrats and by drying up trial lawyer campaign contributions to Democrats," wrote Mississippi political strategist Jere Nash and Taggart in their book, "Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power 1976-2006." Nash is a Democrat.
The campaign for tort reform in the early 2000s often emphasized either directly or indirectly black plaintiffs getting large payouts—which tort-reform lobbyists referred to as "jackpot justice"—over other kinds of lawsuits and damages, thus playing on racist "freeloader" myths. Tort reform was a central issue for Mississippian Haley Barbour, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, when he returned home from his lobbyist firm in Washington, D.C., for eight years to serve as governor.
"In a way that had not been accomplished since the civil rights movement, the tort reform initiative drew a line in the proverbial sand of Mississippi politics," Nash and Taggart continued in the book, also describing how a one-sided media frenzy helped get the law passed.. "Trial attorneys were on one side opposing tort reform, and businesses, joined by healthcare professionals, were on the other side advocating reform. A public official was forced to choose sides. There was no middle ground, no compromise. ... In post-tort reform Mississippi, the political dynamic has forever changed. For businesses and their political allies, a candidate who accepts contributions from trial lawyers becomes radioactive."
Earlier this year, the Legislature, with Baker in support, passed a new tort-reform law. This one reduces requirements on businesses to take certain safety measures if they have reason to believe a crime may be committed on or near their property.
Baker Urges Pro-Business Tact, Taggart Targets Drugs
During Wednesday night's debate, Baker explained how he would approach the role of the attorney general. As Legislatures around the country have turned from blue to red, he said, "legislation is being performed through litigation," and Mississippi needs an attorney general who is willing to be "engaged" in the politics surrounding the office.
Repeatedly, Baker took swipes at Hood for a number of lawsuits he has filed against corporations, saying he should instead focus on fighting discrimination, crime and working with the Trump administration to fight illegal immigration. He claimed Hood is running businesses away from the state.
"CEOs don't come where they aren't wanted," Baker said, without offering specifics on the companies Hood has apparently run off.
When Nobile asked Taggart how he would approach cases involving discrimination, Taggart said "characteristic qualities" like race, sex, religion or ethnicity should never affect how the government treats its citizens. Then, he pivoted to immigration.
"For all of the challenges that we deal with on immigration policy, America is the world's melting pot," Taggart said. "And the fact that we are the world's melting pot has been a hugely beneficial thing in this nation. We have said, to all of the world, that you can come here and have opportunity so long as you come here legally and comport with our laws no matter what your religious tradition might be, no matter the color of your skin, no matter your ethnicity. And if that ever comes to be threatened in the state of Mississippi, then as attorney general, my job would be to enforce the law to prevent people from being mistreated based on those characteristic qualities."
Taggart is known as a "#NeverTrump" conservative. Throughout his presidency, Trump has sought to make it more and more difficult for immigrants to enter the U.S. legally.
Taggart's rejection of Trump is not the only example of him bucking conservative orthodoxy. In April, he told the Clarion-Ledger that he supports changing the state flag. Baker took the opposite position on the flag, chastising those who want to change it as overriding the will of voters who, in 2001, voted to keep the current flag with its Confederate imagery intact.
Taggart did not specifically mention the flag Wednesday evening, but said Mississippi must shake off its past.
"All elected officials ought to be talking to taxpayers and voters about what they think about the future," he said. "Regrettably, it's just a fact, we've been obsessed with our past in Mississippi. But I really believe there's a reason that windshields are so much bigger than rear view mirrors in our trucks, and that's because we spend a whole lot more time looking forward at 60 miles per hour than we do looking backwards. ... Should our past instruct us? Of course it should, just as it should in our individual lives. But it should not bind us.
"We need to be set free from our past and look to our future. And let me tell you, if you disagree with me on this premise, then I'm probably just not your guy. ... Because I'll tell you, in my vision of Mississippi, we can do better."
If voters elect him, Taggart said, his number one cause will be fighting the "scourge of drugs." Seven years ago, Taggart's son died from suicide after battling drug addiction. He shared that story, adding that he believes every family in the state has been touched by the opioid epidemic.
Former 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Justice Charles Pickering was supposed to moderate Wednesday night's debate, but could not make it due to illness, so Nobile took his place.
Mississippi Chooses Primary Candidates on Aug. 6
Mississippi will hold party primaries for all statewide offices, including attorney general, on Aug. 6. Jennifer Riley-Collins, the Democratic candidate for attorney general, is running unopposed in her party.
Mississippians must register at least a month 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 can be used to vote.
Follow state reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman and follow his photojournalism on Instagram @ashtoninms. Send tips to [email protected]. Donna Ladd contributed to this report.