Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood (D) is using an investigation he personally supervised to attack his opponent in November’s gubernatorial election, raising concerns among good government groups over the politicization of the state’s justice system.
Hood, one of the last remaining Democrats who hold statewide office in the Deep South, faces Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (R) in the battle to replace term-limited Gov. Phil Bryant (R). The campaign has been acrimonious, and closely fought since the beginning.
But Hood added a new wrinkle last week, when he released the results of a yearlong investigation into Reeves’s role in building a state-funded frontage road connecting Reeves’s Jackson-area neighborhood with a nearby shopping center.
The 43-page report is heavy on inference and light on conclusions. It suggests Reeves violated a provision of the state constitution meant to prevent conflicts of interests simply because, as lieutenant governor, he was a member of the state legislature at the time the road was built.
In a separate report issued last week and commissioned by Hood, former state Supreme Court Justice David Chandler said he did not see any evidence of wrongdoing.
Reeves’s campaign and government watchdogs cried foul over Hood’s report, which landed seven weeks before voters head to the polls. They accused Hood himself of a conflict of interest, pointing to comments Hood made as recently as two weeks ago detailing his own involvement in the report — and its importance to the coming election.
“I’ve worked on Sundays and weekends trying to get that work done as quickly as possible. The voters should know what happened, and only the attorney general is in a position to do that,” Hood told WJTV in July. He joked about his typing teacher.
Hood said he had met with staff about the report for three hours the previous day — the same day voters had gone to the polls in Mississippi’s primary election.
“I’d draw a chart to map out the conflict of interest, but it would just be a straight line,” said Parker Briden, a spokesman for Reeves’s campaign.
Hood’s campaign waited less than 36 hours to attack Reeves over the report their own candidate authored. In a statement issued in his official capacity as attorney general, he said he would leave the report for the next officeholder to handle.
The investigation began in July of last year, before either man had entered the race for governor. Both were widely expected to run, but Hood dismissed any potential conflict of interest at the time.
“At this point there is no conflict of interest for us to look into this matter,” Hood said in July 2018. “At some point, hopefully we will have an entity available that will take an independent review of this. If they don’t come forward, it may be that I have to do it.”
Hood’s campaign declined to answer detailed questions about whether a conflict of interest existed. Hood’s office referred to its statement from last week and declined to answer inquiries about Hood’s involvement in drafting the report into his political opponent.
But good government groups — and even members of Hood’s own party — called his refusal to recuse himself into question.
“As we’ve seen with [President] Trump, this is typically the sort of thing that is governed by norms, not law or regulation, and the thing we keep finding out is that the new definition of a norm is what the market will currently bear,” said Matthew Miller, a veteran of President Obama’s Justice Department.
“His actions don’t just carry the whiff of unfairness — they also violate the United States Constitution and one of the fundamental norms of our republic,” wrote Jessica Marsden and Cameron Kistler, attorneys at the nonpartisan group Protect Democracy, in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.
Paul S. Ryan, the vice president for policy and litigation at Common Cause, said Hood should have recused himself from work involving a political opponent. He equated Hood’s involvement in the case to the federal Justice Department’s decision to shut down an investigation into Trump’s ties to hush money payments made to women with whom Trump allegedly had extramarital affairs.
“Hood’s involvement in the investigation into Lt. Gov. Reeves undoubtedly causes a big segment of the general public to question the integrity and impartiality of the attorney general office,” Ryan said.
Ryan also drew a comparison to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who as secretary of state oversaw an election in which he was running in spite of complaints of improper voter purges and efforts to disenfranchise some voters.
“It’s always dangerous for a single person to be both the competitor and the referee,” Ryan said. “Those administering elections and enforcing laws with respect to candidates are referees. They shouldn’t also be candidates.”
Hood and Reeves are locked in what appears to be a tight battle even in a reliably Republican state. Internal Democratic polls have the race close, though the last public poll was taken months ago, long before a Republican primary turned bitter and went to an unexpected runoff.
Now, the two candidates are sparring over when and where they will debate in the run-up to November’s elections. The two sides have agreed to an Oct. 10 debate in Hattiesburg. Hood, who says he wants three debates, rejected an invitation to a Sept. 25 debate in Jackson that Reeves said he would attend. Instead, Hood wants to debate Oct. 17 and 29 in Tupelo and Jackson.
The Reeves campaign sent three people dressed as ducks to stalk Hood at a fundraiser on Saturday.
Reeves has something of a built-in advantage over Hood in a state where the Democratic Party has reached a dismal nadir. A provision in state law requires the winning candidate to win both a majority of the vote and a majority of state legislative districts. If Hood were to win the popular vote but lose more districts than Reeves, the overwhelmingly Republican state legislature would choose the next governor.