SID SALTER: Hood stands as formidable obstacle to Simpson's ambitions

By Sid Salter

Mississippi Republicans now officially have a challenger to Democratic attorney General Jim Hood in the 2011 election in the person of Public Safety Commissioner Stephen B. (Steve) Simpson.
Simpson, a former district attorney and Circuit Court judge from the Gulf Coast, was tapped by Gov. Haley Barbour to lead the Department of Public Safety in 2008.
The tall, burly Simpson isn?t short on political pedigree in Mississippi. He’s the son of the late state Rep. James C. (Jim) Simpson Sr., D-Pass Christian, who served seven terms in the Mississippi House, from 1964-1992.
The elder Jim Simpson died in 1994 while campaigning for his son, Jim Simpson Jr. who succeeded his father in House as a Republican. Steve Simpson is the nephew of the late Mississippi political icon and veteran lobbyist William G. Simpson Jr. a former aide to Gov. Paul B. Johnson Jr., U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland and former White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan.
Steve Simpson’s grandfather was a former Pass Christian mayor and Harrison County chief deputy sheriff. Simpson – a former Delta State University football letterman and probation officer – shares his late father’s political gifts. So, in a state where seven-of-eight statewide elected officials are Republicans, Simpson should be able to parlay his extensive political bona fides and his strong affiliation with the administration of a popular governor into a defeat of Hood, right?
Not so fast.
Let’s see, how long has it been since a very reputable Gulf Coast attorney with strong political connections, plentiful campaign finances and pay-for-play accusations against Hood for tossing outside counsel contracts to his campaign contributors launched a campaign to unseat him and lost with Hood taking 59.8 percent of the vote?
In 2007, Hood dispatched classy Gulf Coast attorney Al Hopkins, a retired major general in the Mississippi National Guard and a longtime GOP activist, while weathering some of the strongest attack ads launched against an incumbent in recent state political history.
So even the most optimistic Republican should see Simpson’s entry into the race against Hood for what it is – a tough race in every sense of the term.
Hood doesn’t back up from a scrap and is perhaps the most combative, old school politician left in the Mississippi Democratic Party’s diminishing stable.
That said, this isn’t 2007 and Steve Simpson isn’t Al Hopkins.
Simpson matches Hood?s combative nature. And unlike his race against Hopkins in 2007, Simpson enters the fray against Hood with the incumbent attorney general having to drag the political weight of his prior associations with defrocked trial lawyers Richard “Dickie” Scruggs and Joey Langston.
Hood pounded Hopkins in 2007 over his supposed lack of experience in prosecuting violent crime. Simpson has that experience.
But Hood survived withering attacks from Hopkins over the outside counsel issue in 2007. Can Simpson make Scruggs and Langston issues that engage voters in 2011? Maybe. Yet that’s not the key test.
Simpson’s strategy from the jump seems to be to nationalize the race over the health care reform law legal challenge – which Barbour requested Hood pursue on behalf of the state and Hood refused.
Will Simpson and tea party voters succeed where Hopkins and establishment Republicans failed in 2007? Stay tuned. It should be bare-knuckle race and Simpson can brawl.
But Simpson might note this number – in 2007, Hood got about 9,000 more votes in the general election in his re-election bid as a Democrat than Barbour got as a Republican in his.
Simpson has a hill to climb.
Contact syndicated columnist Sid Salter, who is Perspective editor of the Clarion-Ledger, at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail ssalter@clarionledger.com.