By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
It’s expensive to get elected to the Mississippi Legislature, say candidates, campaign specialists and campaign finance reports.
As statewide elections loom for 2011, some incumbents have geared up to meet that financial challenge, whether they like it or not.
Amory’s Hob Bryan, a 27-year veteran, still can’t get used to the financial reality.
“I am dismayed at the cost of running a campaign for the state Legislature,” he told the Daily Journal just days after he filed his annual report with the Secretary of State’s Office.
He says his latest campaign fundraising reflects the certainty that whatever his expenses were in 2007, they’re likely to be higher this year.
Bryan tops the fundraising list for Northeast Mississippi legislators, their mandatory 2010 year-end reports show.
He’s raised $107,104 as he and his colleagues look toward party primaries and a general election that culminates Nov. 8.
Longtime political analyst Ferrell Guillory at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill sees the cost of legislative races on the rise across the U.S.
And he says they compare financially and substantively with races for Congress in many ways.
“These days, many legislators raise money for their own campaigns and also to donate to the campaigns of their colleagues,” Guillory notes. “It’s about winning friends and supporting your own political party.”
He also sees the platforms in these races more closely mirroring national issues than state or local ones, especially as party politics grows in Mississippi.
“In Legislative politics, especially in the South with the growth of the two-party system, parties matter,” he says. “A legislator’s ability to gain power and get things done has a lot to do with the party and its issues.”
But frankly, incumbents, candidates and observers agree that politics has just gotten bigger. Thus, costlier.
As it stood at the end of 2010, some sitting legislators were more prepared financially than others.
In the Senate:
– Gary Jackson of French Camp, chairman of the Business and Financial Institutions Committee, shows $31,762 cash on hand.
– Nickey Browning of Ecru, chairman of the County Affairs Committee, shows $19,428 in cash.
– Bill Stone of Ashland, a relative newcomer, posts $2,019.
In the House:
– Speaker Billy McCoy of Rienzi raised $75,500 during 2010 and shows a $65,961 cash balance.
– Steve Holland of Plantersville, chairman of the Public Health Committee, lists $42,182 in cash.
– Mark Duvall of Mantachie, facing his first re-election race, shows $7,238 in the bank.
– Brian Aldridge of Tupelo shows up in the lowest cash tier among regional colleagues with $2,761 on hand.
Duvall insists that while strong campaign finances are nice to have, “it’s the votes that win elections.”
“I have never thought someone should spend more on their campaign than the position pays,” he said last week, when asked about his fundraising activities.
In Mississippi, legislators are paid a base $10,000 annual salary and then when they’re in session, $116 per day, called per diem, for meals and overnight accommodations. They also are paid weekly mileage during the session, as well as mileage and per diem when they conduct authorized legislative work between sessions.
Legislative candidates also face the uncertainty of redistricting, which occurs every 10 years when new districts are drawn to reflect population changes revealed by the U.S. Census.
If the Legislature cannot agree on a new district plan by a June qualifying deadline, candidates could wind up running in the current districts this year and in new districts after a plan is OK’d, perhaps by the federal courts, if it comes to that.
Burnsville’s Rep. Lester “Bubba” Carpenter, a Republican, feels the pressure, recalling his win four years ago over a longtime incumbent.
“If the Democrats are serious to try to get this position back,” he says, “it’s going to cost serious money.”
For now, his war chest totals $10,173. Four years ago, his campaign spent nearly $35,000.
By comparison, four years ago District Six’s Sen. Alan Nunnelee of Tupelo raised $153,465 and spent $104,075 to win handily with 65.5 percent of the vote. Nunnelee now represents Mississippi’s First District in the U.S. House.
Size matters for a campaign’s treasury, but it’s not everything, says Reed Branson of Jackson, a former political reporter who lobbies the state capitol these days.
“A healthy cash balance usually sends a signal that a candidate is organized and working a plan and is finding traction,” he says.
“But money isn’t everything. Grass roots support is everything.”
Where that campaign money comes from also can become an issue.
By and large, the 2010 campaign reports show that most of the money came from businesses or political action committees, not individuals.
Tupelo political strategist Morgan Baldwin says he doesn’t see any special significance to the industry-related dominance.
“You are just seeing some early PAC contributions,” Baldwin notes, “and viable candidates will see the local contributions come as they kick off their campaign efforts.”
Carpenter, though, says it’s a sign of the economic times.
“Personal contributions have been seriously affected by our tough economy and the recession,” he notes. “I feel like I need to call on the business community to support my re-election.”
But he and others, like Rep. Mac Huddleston of Pontotoc, insist that they make up their own minds about business-related legislation, not to be influenced by the sources of their contributions.
Huddleston said he’s received business and PAC contributions, “but I promise,” he says, “it wouldn’t affect my vote.”
Journalist Charlie Mitchell of Oxford, who’s reported for decades on Mississippi politics, sees it a little differently.
“Big money donors, left and right, corporate or union, spend to obtain results and have become adept at doing so in whatever way happens to be legal at the time,” he notes. “Cash is a big endorsement, and by looking at donors, it’s easy to see where a candidate has formed alliances.”
An example of a corporate interest is seen in widespread donations from the pay-day lending industry, which faces opposition as it seeks to win re-authorization to continue doing business in Mississippi.
Legislators’ reports show numerous contributions from that industry, especially the legislators on committees handling the re-authorization legislation.
Sen. Gary Jackson, chairman of that chamber’s Business and Financial Institutions Committee, for example, reported more than $12,000 in contributions from the financial services and pay-day lending industry during 2010. That’s nearly 50 percent of his $24,650 receipts for the year.
As of last week, the pay-day lending re-authorization bill, shaped from House and Senate discourse, would allow the industry to continue operation another five years. It also calls for some changes, including a longer pay-back period for loan borrowers.
Jackson was not available to comment about his finance report.
Duvall points to his own report, which shows his donations of less than $200 each strongly outweigh his PAC contributions.
“I never want to be put into a situation where I feel I owe any individual or company or PAC a favor that is contrary to the best interest of the people that elected me to represent them,” he says.
Fundraising leader Hob Bryan, a Democrat, notes that he’s grateful for contributions from “so many people,” including campaign volunteers.
His report, which reflects 2010 fundraising at $42,405, shows about 12.4 percent of the contributions are under $200. Of the 72 listed contributions of more $200, individuals make up 30.5 percent of them, with the rest from PACs or businesses.
Among them are two former chiefs of staff to Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice.
“I try to work with everyone to help improve Mississippi,” Bryan says. “Most of the issues we face aren’t partisan, or at least they shouldn’t be.”
Bryan may be playing what Charlie Mitchell views as a biblical sort of strategy, though perhaps in reverse of the story.
“If a prospective candidate is a David, who wants to take on a Goliath,” Mitchell speculates, “Goliath’s bank account can be a deterrent.”
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or firstname.lastname@example.org.