By Danza Johnson/NEMS Daily Journal
VERONA – The temperature wasn’t the only thing hot at the Verona Heritage Festival as the political climate heated up for some local and state races.
The annual festival that usually commemorates the nuptials of Elvis Presley’s parents served as a mass political rally for candidates for every office from governor to Lee County constable.
Dozens of candidates ignored the scorching temperatures and glaring sunshine to make their appeals to the people of Lee County.
For the most part, the speeches were tame and candidates were careful not to throw stones at their opponents – that is, until the four candidates in the Lee County Sheriff’s race got to say their piece.
Candidates Sam Piraino and Marty Rock voiced some specific issues with the way incumbent Sheriff Jim Johnson has operated over the past eight years. Dovie Outlaw Williams, the fourth candidate, stayed away from pointing fingers at Johnson, instead just giving what she had to offer as the county’s next sheriff, saying she “will look out for the children and elderly in our community.”
Piraino and Williams meet in the Aug. 2 Democratic primary, while Johnson faces Rock in the Republican primary. The winners will meet in the Nov. 8 general election.
Piraino said there was a disconnect between the current sheriff’s office and the people of Lee County, a disconnect he feels he can mend. He also questioned the department’s membership in the Northeast Mississippi Narcotics Unit, which consists of seven counties that deal with drug enforcement regionally saying, “I will bring the Lee County Task Force back to clean up our own backyard.”
But the Rock campaign has been more critical of Johnson’s eight-year tenure and some of those issues were conveyed in Rock’s speech Saturday. A flyer was passed out at the rally with criticisms of Johnson’s administration, including the volume of lawsuits filed against the department during his two terms.
“The past eight years this administration has piled up lawsuits for the county which is not called for,” said Rock to applause from those in his camp.
The fourth candidate to speak, Johnson addressed all the issues his opponents brought up, especially allegations about his staff mistreating inmates.
“I am not a negative person,” said Johnson in a raised voice. “But I have taken about as much of this mess as I’m going to take about the department and employees I love. I have a great staff of people who work hard every day and I’m proud to have them to work for me.”
With Rock’s flyer in hand Johnson defended his administration against Rock’s allegations. As he read off some of the issues members of Rock’s camp, dressed in black T-shirts, occasionally shouted, “It’s true.” Those in Johnson’s camp, wearing blue T-shirts, countered the shouts with applause as Johnson defended the issues.
Verona Mayor Bobby Williams estimated the crowd throughout the day to have been a few hundred people including the candidates. Williams said he felt the rally was good for both Verona and Lee County.
Both candidates for lieutenant governor, Republicans Tate Reeves and Billy Hewes, said they were pleased with the event. Reeves said Lee County will be important in the Republican primary.
James McCord attended the event just as he did four years ago and said he enjoyed hearing what all the candidates had to say.
“This is very important for voters to be able to see and hear the people whose signs are posted in their lawns speak on the issues,” said McCord. “I go to a lot of rallies in the area and Verona puts on one of the best.”
Contact Danza Johnson at (662) 678-1583 or firstname.lastname@example.org.