Waller’s entry in gov race shuffles deck

Published 9:30 pm Wednesday, February 20, 2019

As noted last fall in a previous column, the 2003 election cycle saw Mississippi voters make some interesting choices in terms of the 2019 election cycle in our state.

In that 2003 general election, Republican Haley Barbour unseated incumbent Gov. Ronnie Musgrove by taking 52.6 percent of the vote (470,404) to 45.8 percent (409,787) for Musgrove. Down that same ballot, GOP nominee Tate Reeves won election as the first Republican state treasurer with 51.8 percent of the vote or 447,860 votes to Democrat Gary Anderson’s 46.64 percent of the vote or 403,307.

Elsewhere on that 2003 ballot, Democrat Jim Hood won election to his first term as attorney general with 62.71 percent of the vote or 548,046 votes to 37.29 percent of the vote or 325,942 for Republican Scott Newton.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

A year later in 2004, Supreme Court Justice Bill Waller Jr. took 72 percent of the vote or 243,603 votes in his re-election bid over Richard Grindstaff.

Now, the expected highly-partisan 2019 Mississippi gubernatorial battle between incumbent GOP Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and incumbent Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood has been joined by Waller, who after running in non-partisan judicial elections says he will run for governor as a Republican.

The immediate reaction across the state was that Waller’s bombshell announcement reshuffles the political deck. But does it? Perhaps.

First, there’s the pedigree. Waller’s father, former Gov. Bill Waller Sr., died in 2011 at the age of 85. With his seersucker suits and outsized political persona, Waller was every inch a populist who rose to power by indicting the “Capitol Street Gang” in Jackson.

Underrated and under-appreciated as governor, the senior Waller’s real legacy lies on two fronts: He provided significant leadership to bring Mississippi into the modern era on race relations, and he made the first significant appointments of black bureaucrats into state government.

The junior Waller also brings to the table a natural constituency not just from the legal profession, but from the Mississippi National Guard, where he rose to the rank of Brigadier General.

But Bill Waller Sr. was elected governor some 47 years ago. That’s a long time. While his dad won a statewide election, Waller Jr. hasn’t been elected outside the First Judicial District.

Reeves and Hood also both bring natural constituencies to the table. Waller’s surprise announcement came long after Reeves had a campaign organization firmly established among the mainstream Republicans across the state. Then there’s the not-so-small matter of the large campaign war chest that Reeves has amassed.

Hood has strong support among law enforcement, county officials, and the state’s trial bar. He has dispatched every Republican candidate thrown at him since he first won election as AG and is the state’s only current Democrat among the eight statewide elected officials.

Waller’s entry into the race may well draw other candidates into the race. The veteran jurist will be a formidable candidate. But on the GOP side at this juncture, Reeves remains the frontrunner as surely as Hood does on the Democratic side.

To change that math, Waller faces the unenviable task of amassing his own competitive campaign war chest and creating name identification outside the comfort of his former Central judicial district counties.

CLARIFICATION — In my Feb. 6 column on medical marijuana legislation in Mississippi, I wrote that despite the passage of Harper Grace’s Law — intended to allow Harper Grave Durval and other children like her to obtain treatment with cannabis oil at the University of Mississippi Medical Center — federal bureaucratic roadblocks had kept no child from receiving cannabis oil treatment at UMMC under the 2014 law. But in Nov. 2018, UMMC began a clinical trial of CBD oil treatment for up to 10 patients that is ongoing.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.