June 2, 2018 10:03:47 PM
LAKE, Miss. -- Casually dressed on a warm spring evening, potential voters piled fried catfish onto paper plates and settled onto rows of white folding chairs inside a community center in central Mississippi. The hum of traffic from nearby Interstate 20 could be heard each time someone opened a glass door by the gravel parking lot.
People from in and around the small town of Lake gathered to meet candidates for an open congressional seat -- a rarity in a state that sends people to Washington for long stretches.
Republican Rep. Gregg Harper announced early this year that a decade in office was enough. His decision not to run set off a scramble to qualify for the ballot in what's generally considered a safe Republican seat in a district stretching across timberland, poultry farms, small towns and suburbs in 24 counties.
Six Republicans and two Democrats are competing in Tuesday's 3rd District party primaries, and the Republican race could go to a June 26 runoff.
Two friends and fellow church congregants, 70-year-old Norma Harrison and 46-year-old Paula Deering, attended the fish fry to see candidates they didn't know much about. Both women said they usually vote Republican, though only Harrison said she had supported Donald Trump for president.
"Me? I haven't got much faith in politicians," Harrison said. "Because they'll..."
Deering finished the thought: "...tell you one thing and do another."
Harrison continued: "They don't stand up for what they say. They don't back it up."
People put down their catfish and stood, hand over heart, as a former Miss Mississippi sang the national anthem. During a question-and-answer session that followed, all six Republican candidates spoke for small government, low taxes and a strong military.
The lone Democratic candidate there, Michael Aycox of Newton, pledged to support fellow military veterans and work for better health care. The other Democrat, state Rep. Michael Ted Evans of Preston, sent written answers to questions and they were read aloud by his 20-year-old daughter. Evans pledged to work across party lines to support working families.
The top two fundraisers in the Republican field are Whit Hughes of Madison, who has worked on economic development; and Michael Guest of Brandon, a district attorney. They also live in the most heavily populated part of the district, the suburbs of Jackson.
Hughes mentioned during the forum that he had played baseball and basketball at Mississippi State University in the 1990s, and said he has a "game plan" to promote job growth. "We have to have somebody in Congress ... with some backbone that's going to make priorities, stay focused on the right things for the right reasons," Hughes said.
Guest said that as a prosecutor for 22 years, "I've worked with the men and women of law enforcement to see that our communities are great places to live and to worship and to raise a family."
Second-term Republican state Sen. Sally Doty of Brookhaven said she has supported gun rights, opposed abortion and strengthened state campaign finance laws. "I have the knowledge and experience to really be an effective member of Congress for you," she said.
Republican Morgan Dunn, a health care consultant who also runs a restaurant with her husband in Magee, said President Trump "doesn't need another politician" in Congress. "He needs someone that is going to bring business experience and common sense as a true citizen legislator," she said.
Republican Perry Parker of Seminary, who worked in international finance before moving back to his native Mississippi, pledged to use his business experience to help the district. "For Mississippi to do better, we have to do something different," Parker said. "The same thing applies for America.... Congress can, and should be, a unifying force in America. It has not been."
Republican Katherine "Bitzi" Tate of Jackson, an education consultant, talked about living in military barracks when she had a job as a private contractor. She caused some in the audience to chuckle when she said: "I think if congress people had to live in barracks, it would solve the term limit problem."
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