Tammy Pearson wrapped her arms around her friend Kay Holmes moments after the runoff results were announced the evening of Aug. 27.
"I'm devastated," Pearson, a Republican from Jackson, told her friend as the women consoled each other inside of now-defeated Republican runoff candidate Bill Waller's headquarters in downtown Jackson.
News had just spread across the room that Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves had secured the Republican nomination for governor by focusing on national partisan politics to prove he was the real conservative in the race, as Waller ran on issues.
"It's a sad day for Mississippi," Pearson told the Jackson Free Press, "because Bill ran on policy."
Pearson, who supports Medicaid expansion, fixing roads and bridges, and increasing teacher pay—her own daughter is an educator—said she could not support Reeves despite belonging to the same party.
"Quite honestly, I just don't think he has policy," Pearson said of Reeves. "I think he is controlled by interest groups, and I just don't think he has the best ideas for Mississippi, because he has never shared his policies. Never. He has shared about what he has done and what other people haven't done, but he's never told us his policy."
'This is Mississippi'
Reeves pushed typical conservative buttons on his way to primary victory. Pearson said he spent too much time "relying on his name-dropping of Trump," adding, "This is a state election, not a national election. This is Mississippi."
Sure enough, just a few blocks over at the Westin Hotel, Reeves was soaking up his victory before a crowd of supporters with a speech that was light on policy, but in which he urged his supporters to help him defeat Democratic nominee Jim Hood—or else risk undermining the Republican president.
He celebrated by spending the first five minutes of a less-than-10-minute speech happily bashing "liberals" and the Mississippi press, whom he said has "been predicting my demise all summer long."
"The Capitol press corps forgot that you, the people of Mississippi, are conservative, and they forgot that you would do anything to make sure a conservative gets elected as a nominee," said Reeves, taking a shot at Waller. The lieutenant governor had accused his opponent in the final weeks of the GOP contest of being a "liberal" for his health-care, education and infrastructure policies—despite Waller's credentials as a conservative former chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court.
Now, Reeves said, it was time for his supporters to fight Hood, who is the current Mississippi attorney general and Mississippi's only statewide-elected Democrat.
"Are you going to cave in to the national liberals? Are you going to stand up and fight for our conservative values? Are you going to undermine our president, Donald J. Trump?" Reeves bellowed, as the crowd shouted in unison back after each question, respectively, crying, "No!"; "Yes!"; "No!"
Several miles away just off Lakeland Drive, Hood vowed to mount a tough challenge centered on health care, education, and fixing the state's roads and bridges. He also praised Waller.
"Justice Waller ran a great race. He ran on issues," the Democrat told members of the press at his campaign headquarters that evening.
Hood, a moderate Democrat with conservative views on issues like abortion and guns, pointed out that he is focused on many of the same policies as Waller.
"The issues that Justice Waller talked about and that I'm talking about, like cutting the grocery tax and those kind of things, (Reeves) doesn't have the issues so he has to revert to scare tactics," the attorney general said.
Some lawmakers have introduced bills to cut the grocery tax repeatedly in recent years, but Republican leaders in the Legislature have not supported bringing them to the floor for a vote. Supporters of cutting the grocery tax say it will benefit poor Mississippians the most, since the tax applies to income spent on necessities—not expendable income.
Roads and Bridges
Though Waller did not advocate for cutting the grocery tax, he and Hood do offer similar proposals on some key issues. Both support accepting federal funds to expand Medicaid in Mississippi, which could bring health-care access to 300,000 uninsured Mississippians and possibly help save dozens of struggling rural hospitals.
Both also called for yearly teacher-pay raises until teachers in Mississippi make what those in nearby states, like Louisiana and Alabama, make.
Each man supports some sort of tax increase to raise revenue to fix the hundreds of crumbling and closed roads and bridges across the state, but Hood wants to do that by bringing back the corporate franchise tax that Reeves and other Republicans ended in 2016. Waller wanted to raise the state's gas tax to fund the repairs, but Hood says he would only consider that as a last resort.
As lieutenant governor, Reeves also serves as the president of the Mississippi Senate, where he has significant power when it comes to killing or championing legislation.
In 2016, Reeves shepherded through the franchise tax cut, which benefited out-of-state corporations and cut off $260 million per year in state revenue. In the years since, he declined to appropriate funds for roads and bridges.
With the worsening infrastructure, current Gov. Phil Bryant, also a Republican, called a special session of the Legislature last year to implement a state lottery, with revenue devoted to road and bridge repair. Reeves and other GOP leaders successfully passed the bill creating a Mississippi lottery, which begins this December. However, outgoing Democratic House Minority Leader David Baria told the Jackson Free Press last year that it would not generate nearly enough to solve the infrastructure crisis—a point Waller also made on the campaign trail.
During his victory speech, Reeves gave a nod to Waller, who often wore a red MAGA-style hat with the words, "Make Mississippi Roads Great Again" on the campaign trail.
"A lot of good people voted for him today. And what I want to say to you is this: I heard you. And I am determined to bring this party together to win in November," Reeves said of Waller. "Now if you believe we need to fix our roads and keep our economy strong, hear me out. If you believe we need to raise teacher pay and balance our budget, come with me. If you believe we need to strengthen our hospitals and do it the smart, conservative way, let's do it together."
But Reeves could have done those things, including fixing roads and bridges, if he had wanted to prioritize those things, Hood said at his headquarters minutes later.
"He's had opportunities to fix our roads. The only road he was worried about was his own out here, down in his neighborhood," Hood said.
The Democratic nominee was referring to a road-paving project outside Reeves' private community in Jackson last year. After Reeves refused to agree to significant funding increases for roads and bridges, The Clarion-Ledger reported that Reeves' office had requested the paving project through the Mississippi Department of Transportation.
Reeves denied that he had anything to do with the paving project.
Saving Hospitals, Rural Health
Reeves and Waller had differing views of what it might mean to "strengthen our hospitals" in a "smart, conservative way." For Waller, expanding Medicaid was the smart choice. It would save the state's rural hospitals, he would say at rallies. But it would also encourage people to work.
Under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, or ACA, which President Barack Obama signed into law, the federal government allocates more than $1 billion a year to Mississippi to pay for Medicaid expansion. But since the law took effect in 2010, Mississippi Republican leaders like Reeves and Gov. Phil Bryant have refused to accept the funds.
That has left about 300,000 Mississippians who make too much for traditional Medicaid but not enough for private insurance subsidies under the ACA, with no affordable options.
It has also left hospitals in dire financial straits, as they lose millions a year due to people with no health-care options coming in to emergency rooms for non-emergencies—and with no means to pay for those visits.
At a press conference at the Jackson Medical Mall on Wednesday, Aug. 28, Hood said he would continue pushing for Medicaid expansion and also teased his ideas for mental-health-care expansion.
"It won't be any cost to our taxpayers," he told reporters before touring the facility. "Now, they try to claim that it isn't going to be, but it's not. You check the other states that have recently (expanded). There's a way to do it, to expand it."
It would cost the Mississippi government between $100 million and $150 million per year to pay its part of the expansion in future years, but a report from the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning found that the State would gain $96 million into its coffers and approximately 10,000 new jobs.
There are other ways to fund expansion, too. Hood told the Jackson Free Press on the night of the runoff that he would consider using a plan similar to what defeated GOP runoff candidate Waller had proposed. Under Waller's plan, expanded Medicaid recipients would pay $20 monthly premiums and be charged a $100 fee for going to emergency rooms in non-emergency scenarios.
The plan, which the Mississippi Hospital Association developed, would help reduce the number of emergency-room-care patients who are unable to pay for service. That has contributed to the closure of rural hospitals.
Hospitals across rural America are closing at a staggering rate. The issue hits particularly close to home in Mississippi, where half the state's rural hospitals are at risk of closing due to financial strain, consulting firm Navigant found in a report last year. An emergency-room closure in Hood's hometown precipitated the death of Houston, Miss., resident Shyteria Shardae "Shy" Shoemaker after she suffered an asthma attack in February.
When Shoemaker's friends called 911 at 1:18 a.m., the operator notified them that the local emergency room had closed five years prior because it could not afford to stay open. Though Shoemaker's death could have been prevented, the long wait time it took for her to access emergency care—one hour and 20 minutes after her friends first called for aid—helped ensure the woman's death. She was pregnant at the time, the Daily Journal reported.
On the night of the GOP runoff, Hood pointed to her death as an example of the kind of story he thinks will convince Mississippi's Republican-controlled Legislature to agree to expand Medicaid. He said he is willing to consider Waller's proposal.
"I assume that we'll have the same conservative Legislature that we've had. I ran this race based upon that," Hood told the Jackson Free Press. "But the votes are there now because of things like (those) happening in my hometown where a 22-year-old young lady died on the streets of Houston, Mississippi, from an asthma attack because our emergency room was closed."
'Welfare and Washington'
Reeves, who refers to Medicaid expansion as "Obamacare expansion," still refuses to even consider the idea. During the runoff, he suggested Bill Waller might be a socialist because of his Medicaid plan. He even sent out mailers showing Waller's image next to headshots of independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and national Democratic leaders like U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, U.S. House Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and U.S. House Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
Waller's campaign told the Jackson Free Press at the time it was "politics as usual" and "blatantly false."
While Reeves calls the expansion "unaffordable" and "socialism," Hood insists that the alleged lack of funds to finance health-care expansion is simply due to mismanagement and corruption.
"The reason why we don't have the money right now to fix our roads and our health care and our schools is because Tate Reeves and his cronies gave it all away," Hood said of his opponent. "They gave it to the out-of-state corporations in exchange for campaign contributions. We know it is happening. We don't want to admit that it has happened here in Mississippi, but that is the truth, folks ... I want to make sure that we stop that, that we stop the influence of corporations, and that working people have a seat at the table."
A year after Mississippi's conservative sister state to the west, Louisiana, expanded Medicaid in 2016 despite initially rejecting it, a report from Louisiana State University and the Louisiana Health Department found that expansion had saved the state $317 million, created 19,000 new jobs and added billions to the economy there.
In his runoff victory speech, though, Reeves, who had just invoked Trump to motivate his supporters, accused Hood of promoting "welfare" and looking to Washington, D.C., for solutions.
"Jim Hood will tell you that welfare and Washington are the only things we need," Reeves said.
After Reeves' 16 years in statewide office—first as treasurer and then as lieutenant governor—Mississippi has remained the No. 1 state when it comes to reliance on federal dollars. Federal aid comprised 43.4% of Mississippi's revenue in 2016, a taxfoundation.org analysis found earlier this year. That is well above the national average. The Mississippi Medical Association's political action committee, which advocates for physicians and calls itself the "I.V. League" of donors, has endorsed Reeves, and its PAC donated $20,000 to his campaign in July.
The GOP nominee's health-care plan is to offer tax breaks to physicians who relocate to under-served rural areas and to businesses that support rural hospitals. He also wants to bring more telehealth businesses into the state.
Hood, who has also received large sums from medical PACs that support Medicaid expansion, said he is optimistic about the future of health care in the state.
"I think that there's a coalition of people in the Delta, in different places, Republicans and Democrats" who support expansion, he said. "And that's what is encouraging about this issue, ... it brings all of us together, and we can govern with that kind of coalition."
When asked by a reporter whether he would seek Waller's endorsement, Hood said that he would welcome it and that Waller's indecision on endorsing Reeves already speaks volumes.
"Obviously, last night he did not endorse Tate Reeves," Hood said on Wednesday. "I suspect he will not do that, and I don't blame him. ... Just that silence means so much to me, I think."
Expanding Mental-Health Care
During a tour of the Jackson Medical Mall the day after the GOP runoff, Hood told the Jackson Free Press that expanding mental-health services is also a "huge issue"—one that he has come to know intimately in his role as attorney general. Over the summer, Hood and his legal team defended Mississippi in a federal lawsuit, filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, accusing the state of violating the civil rights of residents with mental illness by denying them adequate health care and treatment options. On Wednesday, a federal judge ruled in favor of the U.S. government, ordering Mississippi to make sweeping changes to its mental health system.
During the 2017 fiscal year, for example, only 20 percent of patients with mental illnesses who were discharged from Mississippi State Hospital met with regional mental-health providers before their discharge, and the state lacks the kind of community mental-health programs needed to treat people locally instead of institutionalizing them. The judge could rule on that case in the next month or two, Hood said.
No matter how that pans out, the state does not have enough trained psychiatrists, Hood said, so his plan for improving mental-health-service access in the state will rely heavily on training nurse practitioners to fill in the gaps. He said Mississippi graduates about five psychiatrists a year.
A 2015 report from the medical consulting firm Merritt Hawkins found that Mississippi had 5.3 psychiatrists per 100,000 residents, whereas states like Louisiana, Tennessee and Alabama had 7.2, 6.6, and 6.3, respectively. The national average is 8.9.
"Our state, we don't have the resources, so we're going to have to depend heavily on nurse practitioners that specialize in the area of (psychiatry) to get them out and encourage them to work in other areas that our doctors hadn't gone (to)," Hood said.
Hood said he had unsuccessfully asked the Legislature "for years" to use money his office won in court cases, like one against a pharmaceutical company, to give millions to the University of Mississippi Medical Center to help train more psychiatrists.
Psychiatrists are not the only professionals in short supply in Mississippi these days, though. Mississippi is going through a teacher-shortage crisis, with many schools in the Delta relying on untrained educators working on emergency teaching licenses.
Mississippi currently pays its teachers some of the lowest salaries, with starting pay thousands of dollars less than in surrounding states like Tennessee, Louisiana and Alabama. Proponents of increasing teacher pay fear that the state's most skilled teachers will continue to leave for big cities and neighboring states, where they can earn up to $10,000 more per year for their work.
"This race is going to be about education. I noticed the lieutenant governor tonight was talking about education," Hood said the night of the GOP runoff. "We've had eight years to do something about it, and he hasn't done anything on teacher pay or many of these other issues. It's the same way with roads."
While Reeves says he supports raising teacher pay if the Legislature can do it in an affordable way, he has often erred on the side of "not affordable" when given the chance. Mississippi teachers did not see a pay raise for five years, and when they finally did earlier this year, it was not enough to keep up with inflation since the last one in 2014.
The Mississippi House passed a $4,000-per-year pay raise in February, but Reeves killed it in the Senate, citing a lack of funds and saying the state could afford no more than a $1,500-per-year raise.
After convincing legislators to agree to the smaller raise, Reeves and a handful of other Republican leaders used legislative trickery to sneak millions for private-school vouchers into an unrelated funding bill just 23 minutes before asking lawmakers to vote—and without telling them about the added voucher funds. That move drew harsh rebuke from Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike, who were outraged over the tactic.
At the Neshoba County Fair on Aug. 1, Reeves defended his support for the voucher program, saying it helps special-needs children. A PEER committee review of the program last year, though, found that just a few hundred children are able to take advantage of the vouchers. Of those, many go to private schools that do not even have special-needs facilities. In some of those cases, public schools have to use their special-needs resources to help the children at private schools.
While Reeves claims a lack of money for a more substantial teacher pay raise, his one major policy proposal, unveiled in July, is a $100-million plan that would invest $75 million to boost career and technical programs in Mississippi community colleges. Some of the remaining funds would go to K-12 education for programs like software development training.
'No Decision,' Waller Says
After the Associated Press declared Reeves the winner, Waller spoke to supporters at his election-night watch party in downtown Jackson, telling them they ran a campaign they "can be proud of."
"We (ran) on issues. We didn't sugarcoat it, we didn't try to tell people what they wanted to hear. We told them what the state needed," Waller said.
He thanked volunteers and staff members, but notably did not endorse Reeves. After the speech, the Jackson Free Press asked Waller if he planned to endorse Reeves. "No decision. That's my answer," he said.
This newspaper then asked why he had not made that decision.
"I'm just not ready to," Waller said.
The Jackson Free Press asked Waller if he had any comment about Reeves' tactics, like mailers that spread false information about his health-care proposal.
"Well, I mean he chose the tactic that he chose, so I don't have any comment," Waller said. "You can ask him about that, but I don't have any comment."
'Rocks to Throw'
Back at Hood's headquarters, though, the Democratic nominee was happy to volunteer his thoughts on Reeves' portrayal of Waller.
"(Reeves) did run a negative campaign because he doesn't have any issues to talk about. The issues that Justice Waller talked about and that I'm talking about, like cutting the grocery tax and those kind of things, he doesn't have the issues, so he has to revert to scare tactics," Hood said. "And that's been happening throughout history, people playing the race card or whatever it is. Some type of scare tactic. 'Someone's gonna come get you if you don't vote for me.'"
"If you'll notice the difference, though, I'll be laying out the issues in this race. Justice Waller was a gentleman lawyer throughout this race, but (Reeves) is dealing with a whole different person. I've been a prosecutor for all these years, and we've got plenty of rocks to throw—and we're gonna throw them."
Some Waller supporters, Hood said, had already told him that they planned to support him if Reeves won the Republican primary.
Reeves won the Aug. 27 runoff with 54% of the vote to Waller's 46%. Reeves, Waller noted in his speech that night, outspent him 5-1, thanks to his significantly better and nationally connected fundraising operation.
Voters will choose between Hood and Reeves in the general election on Nov. 6, 2019. Voters must register 30 days before an election to be eligible to vote.
Fitch Wins GOP AG Nod
In the other big statewide runoff on Aug. 27, current Mississippi Treasurer Lynn Fitch narrowly beat Madison attorney Andy Taggart for the GOP nomination in the race to replace Hood as attorney general.
That all but guarantees that Mississippi will, for the first time, elect a woman to serve as attorney general. Democrats named former Mississippi ACLU Executive Director Jennifer Riley Collins as their nominee for attorney general on Aug. 6.
If Fitch wins, it will be the first time in modern history that Mississippi elected a Republican attorney general. Hood, who has held his post since 2003, is the only Democrat who currently holds statewide office.
Fitch and Collins also face off on Nov. 6 along with other state elections. Other statewide offices on the ballot that day include: lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state treasurer, auditor, agriculture commissioner and insurance commissioner.
All Mississippi House and Senate seats are also on the ballot that day.
More information on voting, voter registration and voter ID is available on the secretary of state's website at sos.ms.gov. Read more 2019 election coverage at jfp.ms/2019elections.
Follow State Reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Send tips to [email protected]. Follow City Reporter Seyma Bayram on Twitter @SeymaBayram0. Send tips to [email protected].