SID SALTER: Simpson’s own issues dog his run for attorney general

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – Mississippi Republicans have a challenger to Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood in the 2011 election in former Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson, but the race simply hasn’t evolved in the manner that many in the GOP had hoped.
Simpson’s two-fold strategy to unseat Hood has first been 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. Second, Simpson has hammered Hood with pay-for-play accusations for tossing outside counsel contracts to his trial lawyer campaign contributors.
In 2007, Gulf Coast attorney Al Hopkins – a retired major general in the Mississippi National Guard and a longtime GOP activist – could manage only 41.2 percent of the vote in challenging Hood on the outside counsel issue even the long political coattails of Republican Gov. Haley Barbour.
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. He is 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.
In 2011, there’s still no love lost between Barbour and Hood. Just this week, Barbour revealed a letter he sent to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee in which he told lawmakers that Hood had settled state lawsuits against four pharmaceutical companies over “average wholesale price” cases for $25.7 million but gave former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove’s law firm $5.459 million in outside counsel legal fees. In the letter, Barbour said the federal government was entitled to 82.03 percent of the remaining $20 million.
Barbour said the feds were also entitled to $2.729 million of the legal fees paid to Musgrove’s law firm. But after Barbour released that information to the press, Hood disputed Barbour’s contention to lawmakers that the state would net less than $1 million from the $25.7 million settlement.
The outside counsel issue is one that resonates with conservatives and Hood is not the first attorney general to encounter flak over the practice. The fact that in the past Hood’s largest two campaign contributors – defrocked trial lawyers Richard “Dickie” Scruggs and Joey Langston – have done federal time on judicial corruption charges is also something that Simpson should be able to exploit in a state that currently has Republicans holding seven of eight statewide offices.
But Hood survived blistering attacks from Hopkins over the outside counsel issue in 2007. That year, 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 run for a second term.
Simpson’s political pedigree makes him an attractive candidate, but the Republican has been dogged by attacks on his travel expenses and use of state property while leading DPS and by documented property tax liens. This week, there were new attacks on Simpson’s use of state resources while at DPS.
Simpson has denied or answered the allegations, but in doing so has hampered his own ability to succeed in a significant challenge to Hood. In an increasingly contentious race, Hood remains the lone Democrat seeking statewide office who appears to be on track to be holding a victory party on election night.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.