Sonny Saw Others as Potential Allies, Not Enemies

The day before election days harried politicians scurry to and fro making last minute connections and headlines to squeeze out those last few votes.

The first “day before” this year for Mississippi elections landed on August 5th. That is also the birthday of a Mississippi politician who seldom had to scurry for last minute votes. The late Congressman G.V. ‘Sonny’ Montgomery would have turned 99 this year. That’s also about the margin of his tightest race, his 1955 election to the Mississippi State Senate over then Lauderdale County School Principal Donald Williamson.

In remembering Sonny, the stark contrast between him and today’s state and national politicians stands out. Aggressive partisanship embraced today casts those from the other party as enemies. Sonny was above partisanship, seeing others as potential allies. Indeed, Sonny worked tirelessly to unite, not divide.

Former Senate Majority Leader and Republican Senator Trent Lott said at Sonny’s 2006 memorial service, “A long-time Democrat, Sonny was truly above party. And no one, on either side of the aisle, ever questioned his sincerity, his integrity, or his independence. A loyal son of Mississippi, one of ours, from his birth to his passing, he really belonged to the nation. For although he saw things from the wisdom and experience of Mississippi’s people, what he always looked out for was the national good.”

Hmmm.  “Above party … national good,” attributes all but erased from today’s politics.

Sonny believed there were some things too important to leave to partisan politics. One was the absolute necessity for the transition from the draft to an all-volunteer military to succeed.

Army historian, Col. Michael Meese, Ph.D., explained, “Transitioning to the All-Volunteer Force was the most important change the Army made since WWII; the Montgomery GI Bill was the policy vehicle that allowed this to happen.” This comes from a book appropriately entitled “Across the Aisle.” It chronicles Sonny’s persevering seven-year bipartisan leadership to get this historic legislation enacted.

The unabashed partisanship of today suggests there are no decisions needed in Mississippi or Washington that are too important to leave to partisan politics.

If so, leaders like Sonny must no longer be needed.

In a letter to Sonny, former Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia wrote, “You are one of the most reassuring things I have found in congress. Your honesty, your statesmanship, your commitment to your country & your love of God will be sorely missed.”

“We loved his humor, we loved his patriotism and we loved his faith,” said the late and former First Lady Barbara Bush at Sonny’s memorial service.

Those of us who knew and worked with Sonny saw and appreciated these attributes. He was a true peacemaker (Matthew 5:9).

We miss you Sonny and do need more like you.

(For you history buffs, Sonny’s next closest vote occurred after his 10 years of service in the state senate during his first race for Congress. In the 1966 Democratic primary, Sonny won in the first with about a 99 vote margin over three other candidates. He won the general election with 65% of the vote, the next general two years later with 70%, four of the next 11 with over 90% with the other seven uncontested. He won in 1992 with 81% and in 1994 with 68%. Sonny retired after 30 years in the Congress in 1997.)

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Will New GOP Primary Voters Make Difference in Runoff?

Roughly 95,000 more Mississippians voted in the Republican primary this year than four years ago, a 34% increase. This pushed Republican turnout over Democratic turnout for the first time.

These new GOP primary voters could noticeably impact the August 27th runoffs.

So, where did they come from?

Well, not from the big 12 Republican counties that typically dominate primaries.

Comparing 2015 official to 2019 unofficial results, Rankin, DeSoto, Harrison, Madison, Jackson, Hinds, Jones, Lee, Lamar, Forrest, Lauderdale, and Hancock Counties did increase their turnout, but that accounted for only 7% of the 34% total increase. They did provide 53% of the total GOP vote, but this was down from 64% in 2015.

Meanwhile, many rural counties, especially in north Mississippi, increased turnout by some amazing percentages – Quitman, Chickasaw, and Tippah Counties over 700%; Bolivar and Grenada over 500%; Alcorn, Benton, Itawamba, Tishomingo, and Panola over 400%; Union, Franklin, Kemper, Tunica, Prentiss, and Sunflower over 300%; Lawrence, Clay, Wilkinson, Pontotoc, and Yalobusha over 200%. Another 24 counties had increases over 100%.

Only six counties, including a biggie, DeSoto County, saw GOP turnout decline. The others were Pearl River, Oktibbeha, Leflore, Montgomery, and Simpson.

The county with the biggest numerical gain was Alcorn at 5,267 (a 406% gain), followed by Tippah at 4,809 (a 732% gain), and Itawamba at 4,720 (a 439% gain).

Notably, almost half of the total increase came from the 24 north Mississippi counties located on or above Highway 32.

It is hard to estimate what impact this turnout shift will have on the runoffs since statewide GOP runoffs seldom occur. There were none in 2015 and only one in 2011.

This year there will be two, Bill Waller vs. Tate Reeves for governor and Andy Taggart vs. Lynn Fitch for attorney general.

Also drawing GOP voters’ attention in north Mississippi will be a runoff for state transportation commissioner between John Caldwell and Geoffrey Yoste. Nine senate and nine house races will also have runoffs.

In 2011, the GOP runoffs were for state treasurer, between Lynn Fitch and Lee Yancey, and six senate races. The runoff drew 156,006 votes. About 71% of these votes, 110,000, came from the big 12 counties.

The surge in GOP voter turnout in rural counties suggests the big 12’s impact will be appreciably reduced this time around.

The 2011 turnout was about 54% of the 287,446 turnout in the first primary. Based on that percentage projected turnout this year would be 202,000 votes. In such case it would take 101,001 votes to win the runoff.

Reeves got 182,989 in the first while Waller got 124,707. Robert Foster, who forced the runoff, got 66,441. In the attorney general primary Fitch got 160,661, Taggart 103,643, and Mark Baker 98,397.

Whose voters will stick and turn back out on August 27th? Will Foster’s and Baker’s voters turn out and for whom?

Reeves with his mountain of money and rural support – 43 of the 56 counties with over 100% increase in turnout gave him clear majorities – remains the favorite as does Fitch.

But Waller has the momentum, coming from nowhere to a runoff in seven months plus clobbering Reeves in his home county (Rankin). Taggart also started late and he beat Fitch by 14 points their home county (Madison).

How new GOP primary voters respond will help determine the winners.

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Reeves Finally Debates Republican Opponents

Well, they debated this one time. The Republican governor candidates that is. Bill Waller looked the most gubernatorial but was the least glib. Tate Reeves still looked boyish but was the most glib. Robert Foster looked confident and scored with his comments.

Reeves poked on Waller. Foster poked on Reeves. Waller, for the most part, poked at impersonal not-good-enough state performance.

Foster said bad tax structure and lack of vocational education in high schools are the main things holding back Mississippi’s economy. Waller said Mississippi’s economy can do a lot better if infrastructure, education, and healthcare needs are addressed. Reeves said we’re doing pretty good but need to keep liberals at bay and continue to cut taxes and regulations.

All three would not change the state flag unless the people vote to do so in another referendum. All three aligned with Foster’s Billy Graham rule on interactions with women. All three thought workforce training was an important issue. All three opposed establishing a state minimum wage. All three will push for stronger Mississippi input on flood control related to the Bonnet Carre Spillway and its impact on the Gulf. All three opposed the state authorizing the sale of medical marijuana.

There were three areas of disagreement.

Foster and Waller both said they would consider reducing personal income taxes to offset limited gas tax increases to fund critical infrastructure improvements. Reeves said no.

Foster and Waller both said they would consider Pence-like Medicaid reform to improve healthcare for poor working Mississippians. Reeves said no.

Foster and Waller both said increasing teacher pay would be a priority to attract and retain quality teachers. Reeves said teacher pay increases would depend on state revenue growth.

Herein lies the salient takeaway from the debate. Reeves has no plan to address the road and bridge infrastructure crisis, critical teacher shortages, or rural hospital and emergency room shutdowns.

The other interesting takeaway was Reeves’ change of course regarding his fellow GOP candidates. Heretofore, he had ignored both Waller and Foster and focused his attacks on Democratic candidate Jim Hood. During the debate he made a concerted effort to poke at Waller. Perhaps recent polls are correct that show Waller would be a stronger candidate in November in a face-off with Hood, forcing Reeves to now directly challenge the former Supreme Court Chief Justice.

Reeves wrapped himself as best he could in Donald Trump’s mantle, boasting of his relationship with the President. Foster got in a good poke by saying he too is a Trump fan and particularly like his efforts to “drain the swamp in Washington.” The state representative continued saying, “We have a swamp in Jackson and the Lieutenant Governor is part of it.” Foster said he wants to drain the Jackson swamp.

Who won the debate is debatable. However, since Foster is the least known of the three, his confident debate performance probably benefited him the most.

There was and will be no debate including all of or the leading Democratic candidates for governor. Hood balked.

The final days of the campaign through the August 6th primary will likely see more pokes and issue differences highlighted, especially with the Neshoba County Fair looming this week.

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Will Humdinger Primary Finally Yield a Republican Attorney General?

The last and only Republican to hold the office of Attorney General in Mississippi was George E. Harris back in 1877. As Republicans began their surge to take over statewide offices in the early 1990s, Mike Moore and Jim Hood easily held on to the position for Democrats.

Odds are that’s about to change.

Even when Republicans took over all other statewide offices in 2008, Hood held on as Attorney General by appealing to many conservative voters. Longtime Democratic leader Bobby Moak said Hood did so by taking “the right stance on God and guns.”

Despite strong credentials, the Democratic nominee for Attorney General, Jennifer Riley Collins can’t match that appeal.

In particular, Hood has been a strong, consistent voice for pro-life issues. As Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, Collins was not.

“The Bible states that God knows us in the womb (Jeremiah 1:4-5), and that’s why I’m firmly pro-life,” Hood told Mississippi Today. In contrast, in 2018 when the Mississippi Legislature passed a bill to ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, Collins told the Associated Press that lawmakers’ real agenda was to ban abortions which would “seriously harm low-income women, women of color, and young women.”

Unless there is a big surprise in November, Mississippi’s next Attorney General will likely be one of these pro-life Republicans, Andy Taggart, Lynn Fitch, or Mark Baker.

Each would bring different strengths to one of the more complex offices in the state. The Attorney General serves as the state’s chief prosecutor, chief legal counsel representing all state agencies, and manager of over 100 lawyers, dozens of investigators, and scores of support staff, nearly 300 in all.

Taggart, a practicing attorney for 34 years, is the lawyers’ lawyer of the three. He holds the elite “AV” peer review rating from Martindale-Hubbell. State officials have called on him to represent the state in cases when Hood has refused to do so. He has handled important cases before the U.S. District Court, the Mississippi Supreme Court, and the Mississippi Court of Appeals. He has also served as a Madison County Supervisor, Gov. Kirk Fordice’s Chief of Staff, and president and CEO of the Mississippi Technology Alliance.

Fitch, also an attorney for 34 years, is the experienced agency manager of the three. One of only four women ever elected to statewide office, she has served as State Treasurer since 2012. In 2009 Gov. Haley Barbour named her executive director of the State Personnel Board. Both agencies employ about 40 full-time staff. Prior to 2009, Fitch served as deputy executive director at the Department of Employment Security, as counsel for the House Ways and Means and Local and Private Legislation Committees, and as a special assistant Attorney General.

Baker, a practicing attorney for 30 years, is the popular Rankin County candidate. (Note: the current governor, lieutenant governor, and state auditor live in high Republican turnout Rankin County.) Since 2004 he has represented much of Rankin County in the Mississippi House of Representatives where he serves as chairman of the House Judiciary En Banc and Judiciary A Committees. He has also served as board attorney for the municipalities of Brandon and Puckett, as city prosecutor for Brandon, and as municipal judge for Pelahatchie.

This should be a humdinger primary with a likely runoff. Who will survive to take on Collins?

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Course Changes Needed for Mississippi? Yes or No

Happy with the way things are going in Mississippi and want to stay the course? Then Tate Reeves is probably your choice for Governor. Stay the course is pretty much his campaign message.

Not so happy with the way things are going? Well, if you want a conservative Republican to guide course changes, then Bill Waller or Robert Foster should be your choice. Each would take a somewhat different approach to those changes, Waller guided by his longtime Supreme Court and National Guard background and Foster by his agribusiness and recent legislative background.

If you’re fed up with Republican control, then a Democrat, most likely Attorney General Jim Hood, will be your option.

Of course, governors are not the only political leaders who can cause course changes. We know from Reeves’ domination of the Mississippi Senate that the Lieutenant Governor has a lot of sway. Gilbert, Philbert, Dilbert, Albert, Delbert (take your choice) Hosemann is the odds on favorite to succeed Reeves. Both he and Democratic nominee Jay Hughes will attempt to take the state in directions not tolerated by Reeves, with Hosemann taking the more conservative path.

The Speaker of the House of Representatives also has sway. Likely to be re-elected in January, current Republican Speaker Philip Gunn has shown he is willing to take alternate paths to those Reeves took.

Another position with sway is that of Attorney General. There will be course changes coming here. The Mike Moore/Jim Hood era is coming to an end. Odds are that in heavily Republican Mississippi one of the GOP candidates will easily win the position over Democratic nominee Jennifer Riley Collins. Longtime GOP leader Andy Taggart, State Treasurer Lynn Fitch, and State Rep. Mark Baker are no peas in a pod either, with each likely to chart different paths from the others. 

As I wrote in an earlier column, where you live matters and will likely impact your perspective of how Mississippi is doing and whether the state needs course changes. Even then, it’s easy to be confused.

Consider these conflicting facts.

Mississippi has more people working than ever before and our unemployment rate is the lowest ever. Yet, we have the lowest average weekly wages in the nation and our 18 to 24 population is shrinking as our elderly population surges. 

Mississippi over the past seven years created 35,000 new jobs and attracted more than $7 billion of private investment. Yet economic distress is on the rise in three-fourths of our counties and many hospitals, key economic engines, are at risk of closing.

National publications rate Mississippi high as a business friendly state. But national rankings consistently rate us at or near the bottom in health status, educational achievement, and per capita income.

High school graduation rates and some NAEP scores are up. But, teacher shortages have reached crisis stage.

State revenues are up and the rainy day fund is full. Yet many programs are underfunded and total indebtedness, which includes the PERS unfunded liability, is at a record high and growing.

How these things are playing in your backyard will determine Mississippi’s direction over the next four years.

More of the same, something a little different, or something a lot different, those are your choices, some of which you are going to get anyway.

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Political Ad Bombardment Coming as Aug. 6 Primaries Near

Four weeks. Only four more weeks until Mississippi’s August primaries.

It will be a super quick four weeks if you’re a candidate. There’s just never enough time to do everything you meant to do, they told you to do, or you ought to do.

It will be a long, arduous four weeks if you’re already tired of political advertising. Every minute of every day, every nook and cranny of visual and aural media will be overstuffed with political advertising.

Now is when local candidates will crack open their often meager political nest eggs to buy political ads. Competing with them will be state and regional candidates who couldn’t afford much media until the last minute. Dominating will still be those statewide candidates who had, and have, tons of money to spend.

And don’t forget the yard signs, rather, the much more prolific highway and street right-of-way “yard” signs.

If you haven’t been paying attention, you will now have no choice.

Local campaigns have a lot to do with statewide campaign results. Most voters turn out to vote in their local races – sheriff, supervisor, school board member, district attorney, circuit clerk, chancery clerk, tax assessor, tax collector, county attorney, justice court judge, constable, coroner, state representative, and state senator.

Where these races are contested, turnout should be high. Where they aren’t, turnout will depend on interest in state and regional races.

It is the aggregate of these local turnouts that will likely decide if there are runoffs in any state races.

Both the Republican and Democratic primaries for Governor could see runoffs. Bill Waller, Robert Foster and Tate Reeves are seeking the Republican nomination.  Albert Wilson, Gregory Wash, Jim Hood, Michael Brown, Robert Ray, Robert Shuler Smith, and Velesha Williams are seeking the Democratic nomination.

The other statewide race with a potential runoff is the Republican primary for Attorney General. There Andy Taggart, Lynn Fitch, and Mark Baker are running.

There will be no runoffs in other top races like Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, State Treasurer, Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce, Commissioner of Insurance, and State Auditor since there are only one or two candidates in each race.

The only other non-local races where a runoff could happen are the Republican primaries for Northern District Transportation Commissioner where A. Hathcock, Geoffrey Yoste, Jeremy Martin, John Caldwell, and Trey Bowman are running and for Southern District Transportation Commissioner where Chad Toney, Tom King, and Tony Smith are running, and the Democratic primary for Central District Public Service Commissioner where Bruce Burton, De’Keither Stamps, Dorothy Benford, and Ryan Brown are running.

The great lack of potential statewide runoffs poses risks for the heavyweight favorites in the race for Governor. Should either Reeves or Hood, or both, end up in runoffs, turnout will be problematic.

Could that happen? Yes.

For example, if there are high Republican turnouts in Central Mississippi and DeSoto County and average turnouts elsewhere, governor candidates Waller and Foster might pull enough votes together to send Reeves into a runoff. If there are high Democratic turnouts in the Delta, Hinds County, and other heavily black counties, Smith, Williams, Brown, Albert, Wash, and Ray might pull enough votes together to send Hood into a runoff.

All these upcoming political ads will help you decide what happens.

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Studies Show That Where You Live Matters

Where you live matters, they say.

Let’s start with this from USA Today. “In a capitalist economy, like that of the United States, some level of income inequality is to be expected. In recent years, however, the increasing consolidation of wealth in the hands of a few has gone beyond what many Americans deem to be justified or morally acceptable. According to a recent report published by the New York-based financial firm JPMorgan Chase, the wealthiest 10% of American households control nearly 75% of household net worth.”

USA Today said that 24/7 Wall St reviewed over 3,000 U.S. counties and county equivalents to identify the 25 counties in America with the widest income gaps. Mississippi has four of them. Here’s some of the blurb on each:

Walthall (#6) – One in five households earns less than $10,000 a year, one of the largest such shares of any U.S. county, while 1.7% of households earn $200,000 or more. Of the nearly one in five adults who have no high school diploma, 45.2% live below the poverty line.

Holmes (#11) – Due to widespread financial insecurity, Holmes ranks among the worst counties to live in. Over 45% of residents live below the poverty line, and nearly 30% earn less than $10,000 a year. Low educational attainment — the median annual income of the 25% of adults with no high school diploma is just $17,143.

Leflore (#18) – Like Holmes, due to widespread financial hardship, Leflore ranks among the worst counties to live in. Nearly one in four households earn less than $10,000 a year, “nearly the largest share of any U.S. county or county equivalent.”

Winston (#25) – 3% of households earn $200,000 or more per year. Low income households lie in close proximity to high income households. More than one in four residents live below the poverty line, and 23.9% rely on SNAP benefits.

A follow-up USA Today story showed “the worst county to live in each state” based on poverty, education, and life expectancy. Mississippi’s winner – Holmes County.

Then, there’s this.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported, “People living just a few blocks apart may have vastly different opportunities to live a long life in part because of their neighborhood.” The Foundation in partnership with the National Center for Health Statistics released data that lets you see your life expectancy based on your neighborhood. Enter your home address at https://www.rwjf.org/en/library/interactives/whereyouliveaffectshowlongyoulive.html and see life expectancy for your neighborhood, your county, your state, and the nation.

The life expectancy for one neighborhood near me is 68 years while another is 81. My county average was 74.9 years, Mississippi’s 74.7, and the nation’s 78.6. “The data makes it possible to understand how much our health is influenced by conditions where we live,” says the foundation.

A study by the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program reported your neighborhoods proximity to jobs “can influence a range of economic and social outcomes from local fiscal health to the employment prospects of residents.” In particular the study found, that job proximity was significantly lower for residents of high-poverty and majority-minority neighborhoods. “Overall, 61% of high-poverty tracts (with poverty rates above 20 percent) and 55% of majority-minority neighborhoods experienced declines in job proximity between 2000 and 2012.”

Lots of info. There’s more. But no real surprises for us used-to-it Mississippians.

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