JACKSON, Miss. — The Neshoba County Fair can be one of the best places to see old-fashioned political stump speaking in Mississippi. But with no statewide or federal elections in 2017, this was a lackluster year for speeches.
The only zingers were delivered in back-to-back appearances last week by two men who might be the top contenders for governor in 2019, should they both choose to run — Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood and Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.
Hood, the only Democrat in statewide office, said the Republican-led Legislature is making a hash of the state budget by cutting taxes and shortchanging mental health services, education and transportation.
“We have examples of … all the tax cuts to large, international corporations, billionaire corporations — giving away our state treasury when we need it the most,” Hood said.
Reeves, one of the key players in pushing the tax cuts, said Republicans are taming government’s “endless appetite” for money. He also snapped back at Hood.
“The longer he talked the more I became convinced the heat has gotten to him. His vision is blurry and he’s not making sense,” Reeves said. “Can somebody track General Hood down and keep him hydrated today?”
The Neshoba County Fair is an annual gathering in the red clay hills of east central Mississippi. Hundreds of brightly painted cabins become a temporary home base for extended families to eat and socialize during some of the hottest days of summer. The fair has a small midway and a dirt track for horse races.
For two days each year, politicians speak under a tin-roofed pavilion that’s almost like an outdoor church on a part of the fairgrounds called Founders Square. Spectators sit on long wooden pews, shuffling their feet in sawdust that covers the dirt. Ceiling fans provide a bit of air circulation, and some people use paper fans to create their own small breeze.
During big election years, Founders Square is abuzz with crowds of people who show up to cheer or jeer the politicians. Some candidates bring busloads of supporters wearing campaign T-shirts.
Founders Square has seen some doozies, including a heated debate in 1995 between Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice and the Democrat who was trying to deny him a second term, Secretary of State Dick Molpus. The Molpus family has a cabin on the square, a few steps from the pavilion.
Though Neshoba is Molpus’ home territory, the conservative crowd on the square that day responded with whoops and hollers when Fordice roared: “I don’t believe we need to keep running this state by ‘Mississippi Burning’ and apologizing for 30 years ago.”
It was a reference to the 1964 Ku Klux Klan killings of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County — a case the FBI called “Mississippi Burning.” At a memorial service in 1989, Molpus publicly apologized to the families of the victims, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. Molpus was a child when the killings took place, but he said someone needed to express remorse.
Molpus, who ran on a pledge to strengthen public education, lost the 1995 election to Fordice.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant used his Neshoba speech this year to tout job creation and denounce labor unions.
Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn said in his speech that he and other Republicans have sought to protect individual liberties: “We believe that just because a problem exists does not mean that government has to fix it.”
The politicians’ speeches were greeted with applause, but not by the rowdy cheers of an election year.
Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .
An AP news analysis