PHILADELPHIA – During the often-intense negotiations that eventually led to passage of a state budget just before the July 1 deadline, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said he opposed a tax increase on hospitals “because I want to go to the next Tea Party.”
Stringer’s remarks came during a meeting of legislative leaders and were directed toward Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and Senate Appropriations Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo.
The comment was a not-so-subtle reminder that while the Senate leaders were demanding an increase in the hospital tax as part of any budget agreement, only a few weeks earlier they had spoken at Taxed Enough Already events – Bryant in Jackson and Nunnelee in Tupelo.
Before the dust had settled – or in this case the muddy red clay – at this year’s rainy version of Neshoba County Fair political speaking – the Tea Parties had come up again.
This time it was a Republican using them to criticize members of his own party.
It was not lost on political observers that Treasurer Tate Reeves used much of his speech to criticize the budget passed by the Legislature and the tax increases that helped to fund the budget.
In criticizing Republicans, Reeves said, “Even today, we still have some officials railing against taxes and spending at Tea Parties and then turning around and supporting higher taxes and spending when they think no one is looking. To those, I say, you can’t have it both ways.”
For many, the Neshoba County Fair political speakings provide an opportunity to detect by often-subtle signals which politician is running for which office. Some make it easy, like Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney, who announced at the fair he would be seeking re-election.
With state elections still two years away, others were not as direct. But many political observers read Reeves’ Tea Party comments as a direct shot across the bow, informing everyone that he is not going to concede the Republican gubernatorial nomination to Bryant.
The lieutenant governor has long been considered a front-runner for the seat since Republican Gov. Haley Barbour cannot seek re-election.
Reeves was not the only one making noise at the fair – at least not in the rumor mill.
Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann sounded very much like a possible candidate for another office, even governor, as he spoke about the importance of education in general and of early childhood education in particular.
Hosemann says he is focused on his job as secretary of state, but denies that he told high schoolers at a recent Boys State convention that he would not be a candidate for governor.
Other notables were the subject of discussion as well.
While his speech at the fair did not necessarily spark any speculation, there are still rumors that state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller of Jackson will run for governor.
Waller is in no position to answer such rumors since he would have to leave the bench to seek another office.
Because Waller assumed the post of chief justice of the nine-member court only this year and is now considered the head of the state’s judiciary, it would be hard to imagine he would give that position up for an iffy gubernatorial bid.
But there is precedent for such action. In 1999, Northern District Supreme Court Justice Jim Roberts stepped down from the state’s highest court to run unsuccessfully for governor in the Democratic primary against a heavily favored Ronnie Musgrove.
Whether Waller would run as a Democrat or Republican is also a question. Judicial offices are nonpartisan. His father was governor in the 1970s as a Democrat, but has since supported several Republican candidates.
The sole Democratic statewide elected official gave no hint during his speech of his intentions. Instead, Attorney General Jim Hood focused on his office’s efforts to combat cybercrime, particularly when it targets minors. But Hood has said he is not ruling out a run for governor.
Auditor Stacey Pickering also focused on efforts by his office to combat public corruption, and Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell did not attend.
Those generating the most speculation were Bryant, Hosemann and Reeves, who delivered the event’s most aggressive speech.
But not all signals about future candidates can be gleaned by focusing solely on the speakers at the historic Founder’s Square Pavilion.
Making their way around the fairgrounds hinting strongly that they intend to run for governor were Clarksdale attorney-businessman Bill Luckett, a Democrat, and Gulf Coast businessman Dave Dennis, a Republican.
Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal