JACKSON – Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Lester Spell announced Wednesday he would not seek re-election to a fifth term in 2011, saying he wanted to reveal his decision early to give potential candidates time to prepare for a statewide campaign.
“It takes a good bit of time to organize a statewide campaign,” Spell said. “I figured any potential candidate needed an adequate amount of time to do the things needed to run a statewide campaign.”
Spell, 67, announced via a letter to supporters and later to the media on Wednesday that he would not seek re-election to a job he has held since 1996. He said he is ready to retire.
“I would really like to spend more time with family and friends and do some other things,” said Spell, who stressed he would not be running for another political office or even resuming a full-time veterinary medicine practice.
With Spell stepping down, Sen. Perry Lee, R-Mendenall, a retired county agent, said he is “sure there will be a large field running” to replace Spell. “There usually is when there is no incumbent,” Lee added.
The Department of Agriculture and Commerce, which the commissioner oversees, has varied duties, ranging from promoting agriculture to ensuring food safety to monitoring gas pumps for accuracy.
“I think Lester Spell has done a great job,” said state House Agriculture Chair Greg Ward, D-Ripley. “He has run his agency with efficiency.
“I really hate to see him retire. On the other hand, I am glad to see him retiring with good health so that he will be able to spend time with his family.”
Spell, who switched to the Republican Party in 2005, took office in 1996, replacing longtime Commissioner Jim Buck Ross. In his first year, Spell had to reduce staff and make other cuts in the department to deal with a deficit.
“We still have 33 percent fewer people than when we came into office,” Spell said Wednesday.
Spell became the first mayor of the Richland when the community south of Jackson incorporated in the mid-1970s. Spell served in that post until he emerged from a crowded field to win the statewide post of agriculture commissioner in 1995.
“I have been in public service for a long time,” he said. “I have enjoyed it. The Lord has blessed me … in so many ways … This has been a challenging and rewarding job. I am thankful for the people for giving me this opportunity.”
On Wednesday, Spell said he believes the agency is more efficient, thanks to the work of the department’s employees and to the modernization efforts that have been put in place, such as closing what he called “an antiquated” food safety inspection lab and contracting with a private lab.
Under Spell’s watch, the Make Mine Mississippi Program was launched to provide marketing and financial incentives for Mississippi products.
Spell’s agency says the program has created or saved nearly 4,000 jobs since 1999.
Spell took some heat over his support of the failed beef processing plant in Yalobusha County that was opened with state funding in 2003. The owner of the plant and others associated with the plant were eventually sentenced to federal prison on various charges related to misconduct in the construction of the plant.
Spell maintained the that beef processing plant would have been a success and would have produced jobs and tax revenue for the state if it had been properly managed.
Jones County farmer Rickey Cole challenged Spell in the 2007 election and hammered him on the beef plant issue. Spell won with just more than 50 percent of the vote – by far his closest re-elecion effort.
“Like all of us, he was not perfect,” said Lee. “We didn’t agree on everything, but he has been a good commissioner.”
Lee had been rumored as a possible candidate to replace Spell. On Wednesday, he said he was surprised by Spell’s retirement announcement, and said he would give the question of his political plans “a lot of prayerful consideration and a lot of discussion with my family.”
State Rep. Dannie Reed, R-Ackerman, a former county agent, also has been mentioned as a likely candidate for the post. In the past, Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, a former House Agriculture Committee chair, has been considered a possible candidate.
The open post has the potential to draw a lot of interest as Lee said. Thus far, Attorney General Jim Hood and Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney have announced intentions to seek re-election. The possibility exists that the other six statewide posts, including ag commissioner, could be open in 2011.
Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal