By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
JACKSON — Mississippi voters go to the polls Tuesday to narrow the field of candidates for the Nov. 8 general election for governor and other statewide offices.
Democrats have only one contested statewide primary, in the governor’s race. Republicans have statewide primaries for governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer and agriculture commissioner.
Polls will be open from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday. Primary runoffs, if needed, will be Aug. 23.
Because Mississippi voters don’t declare party affiliation when they register, qualified voters can choose to participate in either primary.
While the statewide races will motivate some people to go to the polls, many will choose between a Democratic or Republican ballot based on their interest in legislative contests or in county races for sheriff and supervisor.
Five-term Sen. Billy Hewes of Gulfport and state Treasurer Tate Reeves of Flowood are competing in the GOP primary for lieutenant governor, a job that’s open this year because current Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant is running in the Republican primary for governor.
The lieutenant governor’s contest could be the most consequential race because the winner most likely will hold the office for the four-year term that begins in January. No Democrat is running for lieutenant governor. The Reform Party wants to put a candidate on the Nov. 8 general election ballot, but it runs low-budget campaigns and has never won a statewide race in Mississippi.
The lieutenant governorship is one of the most powerful jobs in Mississippi politics. In addition to serving as governor when the governor is out of state, the lieutenant governor presides over the 52-member Senate, appoints Senate chairmen and assigns bills to committees. The bill assignments often determine whether proposals will live or die.
Hewes, 49, says he wants to repeal the state inventory tax, strengthen vocational training in high schools, consolidate administrative functions for state agencies, order audits of state consulting contracts and require more disclosure about contracts for private attorneys who handle lawsuits on behalf of the state. He also says he wants to require drug testing of people receiving welfare or unemployment benefits.
“We have to be sure that we don’t finance the drug habits of the people we’re trying to help,” Hewes said this past week at the Neshoba County Fair.
Reeves, 37, has not released a detailed legislative agenda, but said he wants to increase educational attainment in Mississippi and streamline state government by reducing the number of publicly-owned or leased vehicles and cell phones. Reeves said he agrees with requiring more disclosure about public contracts for private attorneys, and he wants to remove the inventory tax if the state can do it without hurting local governments that rely on the revenue it produces.
“I will not go along to get along as your next lieutenant governor,” Reeves said at the Neshoba Fair, an annual gathering that attracts tens of thousands of people to east central Mississippi.
Five Republicans and four Democrats are competing in gubernatorial primaries.
On the Republican side, Bryant and construction executive Dave Dennis of Pass Christian have raised the most money.
Dennis and others have criticized Bryant as a career politician. Bryant, of Brandon, served nearly five years in the state House before then-Gov. Kirk Fordice, a Republican, chose him to become state auditor in late 1996 when Democrat Steve Patterson stepped down. Bryant was elected auditor in 1999 and 2003 and lieutenant governor in 2007.
Bryant said the auditor’s office recovered nearly $12 million from investigations of corruption cases while he was there.
“That’s not climbing the political ladder,” Bryant said. “That’s fighting for the people.”
Also running in the Republican gubernatorial primary are Ron Williams, a businessman from Moss Point; Hudson Holliday, a Pearl River County supervisor from Poplarville; and James Broadwater, an ordained Baptist minister from Byram.
Dennis, 58, said his private-sector experience, including serving as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board in New Orleans, would make him a strong chief executive officer for the state.
“I’ve been out creating jobs,” Dennis said.
In the Democratic primary for governor, the top fundraisers are Clarksdale businessman and attorney Bill Luckett and Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree. Two candidates are running low-budget campaigns — Meridian High School history teacher William Bond Compton Jr. and retired Yalobusha County tax assessor Guy Dale Shaw.
DuPree, 57, said he wants to improve education by hiring graduation coaches for middle schools and high schools. He also wants to give income tax breaks to public school teachers with at least three years’ experience — a way to put more money in the pockets of some of the lowest-paid teachers in the nation.
“What it says is that you are important, you are professional,” DuPree said.
Luckett, 63, is campaigning on pocketbook issues.
“Let’s get rid of this grocery tax that sits on the backs of every working man and woman in this state,” Luckett said.
Mississippi has a 7 percent sales tax on most items, including groceries. Attempts to reduce or repeal the grocery tax failed several years ago amid arguments about how the change would affect state revenues. At the time, the debate was about pairing a grocery tax reduction or elimination with an increase in the cigarette tax. Since then, cigarette taxes have been increased.
Luckett said to make up for a loss of grocery-tax revenue, the state could reduce the number of government employees and cut back on the fleet of government vehicles.