The men vying to replace Haley Barbour as governor of Mississippi met on stage Wednesday for a forum at Mississippi State University.
Minus several candidates, most noticeably Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, the majority of candidates shared the stage in the Lee Hall auditorium for a question-and-answer session.
Republican lieutenant governor candidates Billy Hewes and Tate Reeves preceded the gubernatorial candidates.
With no time offered for rebuttals, each candidate got one crack at four questions along with an opening and closing statement. Some played the role of consummate politician, while others relied on southern charm and wit or no-nonsense stoicism to impress the crowd.
Democratic participants included Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny Dupree, Clarksdale lawyer and businessman Bill Luckett, Meridian High School teacher Bill Compton Jr., and former Yalobusha County Tax Assessor Guy Shaw. Republican participants included Gulfport contractor Dave Dennis, Pearl River County Supervisor Hudson Holliday and Moss Point businessman Ron Williams.
Compton struck a personal chord on the first question, regarding health care, stating he needed the federal government”s help in order to save enough money to retire on his teacher”s salary. Dupree countered Dennis” suggestion to substitute a health care exchange by saying “Obamacare” already calls for health care exchanges. Hudson and Luckett staked out polar positions, with Hudson calling for government to stay out of health care altogether and Luckett quoting Mississippi”s various rankings as the poorest state with the highest number of uninsured citizens as proof the government needs to intervene. Williams accused the health care industry of price gouging, and Shaw admitted he didn”t know what to do about health care.
“Would you like to suggest something?” Shaw asked the audience, drawing laughter.
Asked how to keep Mississippi college graduates from fleeing the state for jobs, Hudson was blunt.
“What holds Mississippi back is our image. People still see us as backwards, barefoot and ignorant,” he said.
Luckett suggested focusing on tourism to create jobs, while Shaw pledged to follow Alaska”s example and drill the state to solvency. Williams called for tort reform, and Compton claimed full funding for colleges and K-12 education would attract businesses by building an educated workforce.
Given the opportunity to revise the state budget, Hudson, a military man, said he would leave the budget intact but improve communication from Jackson down to county supervisors and even teachers to boost morale. Luckett proposed implementing a sales tax on Internet purchases while Compton backed full funding for the tax commission to conduct audits and crack down on tax fraud.
Following the final question, which focused on the candidates” criteria for appointing 8-12 members of the state College Board and their willingness to appoint a student representative to the board, Luckett was the only one to balk at the idea of appointing a student.
“Perhaps (I would appoint a student) in a non-voting or advisory position. But it”s too important a position to put a student on that board,” he said.
Shaw and Williams both praised the current College Board and questioned whether changes are necessary at all, with Williams adding that any appointments of his would have teaching experience. Compton and Dupree agreed a student may bring needed perspective and tech savvy to the board.
Dennis emphasized business experience, referring to universities as “businesses in the education arena.”
Jason Browne was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.