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MERIDIAN — The main drag of the state’s seventh-largest city is lined with “Sela Ward Parkway” signs to honor the Emmy-winning actress and one of the city’s most recognizable natives. Ward – affectionately known around town as just “Sela” – is truly a household name here.
But on Monday afternoon, you would have been hard pressed to find a single person walking along the Sela Ward Parkway who recognized the name of Howard Sherman, her husband and one of six Democrats running for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Roger Wicker.
“This (campaign) is just a matter of having people have a chance to experience me,” Sherman said in an interview with Mississippi Today while he was campaigning in Pascagoula last week.
If there is a Howard Sherman experience, it isn’t evident in his adopted hometown 40 days before the Democratic primary. Of the 15 people polled in downtown Meridian during the lunch hour on Monday afternoon, just one person could place his name, and that person didn’t know he was running for Senate.
A downtown boutique owner said she wouldn’t recognize him if he walked through her door. A lifelong Meridian resident sitting at the bar inside Weidmann’s restaurant said he had never heard the name. A passerby near the new Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience cultural complex downtown said she didn’t know he was running for Senate until she heard it on the radio last week.
Several local and state officials from Meridian and around the state said they were surprised he entered the race.
“I don’t know Howard that well, but you know, he’s in a celebrity sort of circle,” said state Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian. “Of course, everyone knows who Sela is, but I guess they may not be as familiar with Howard. Because of their celebrity status, you don’t see them around town a lot. I suppose that’s understandable. But they’ve got a presence here.”
Carlos Moore, a Clarksdale judge who met Sherman for the first time last week before an NAACP dinner, describes himself as someone who closely follows politics.
“And I had never heard of him until he decided to run,” said Moore. “I’m not really sure how I feel about him. In one vein, I’m glad he decided to run as a Democrat. In another vein, I wonder if he’s really a Democrat and what his motivations are for running.”
On the surface, Sherman is a solid candidate. A longtime entrepreneur and venture capitalist who is married to a Hollywood star, Sherman has a vast national fundraising network and plenty of his own cash to infuse his war chest. In the first quarter of this year, Sherman loaned his own campaign $500,000 – what he calls “an investment in Mississippi.”
A California native who earned his undergraduate degree at Claremont McKenna College, a private liberal arts school in Southern California, and masters in business from Harvard, he has not shied away from talking about Mississippi’s problems on the campaign trail.
“My wife and I, wherever we go, are asked where we live now,” Sherman said. “We get that look – that ‘Mississippi Burning,’ KKK Mississippi, those three civil rights workers (who were murdered in Philadelphia in 1964). The impression of so much outside Mississippi is they don’t think about what the Arts and Entertainment museum (in Meridian) represents. They think back to what you see when you go to the civil rights museum in Jackson.”
He has hired an all-star campaign duo who were central to Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones’ 2017 upset win: Giles Perkins, who is serving as Sherman’s campaign manager, and Joe Trippi, who is consulting and running data.
The relationships and connections aside, Sherman is as unique a political candidate as Mississippi has seen in recent years for other reasons – some of which have already brought about a petition to disqualify him from the Democratic primary and made him the subject of a donation request from an opposing campaign.
Sherman has never cast a vote in Mississippi, according to the Secretary of State’s voting records. Most of his listed residences are in Beverly Hills, though he does own 500 acres of property just outside Meridian, according to Lauderdale County property records.
The thing that many Democrats in the state are struggling perhaps the hardest to reconcile: Sherman has a long track record of supporting Republicans, including Wicker, the incumbent senator he would face in the November general election should he win the Democratic primary in June.
That track record features support of top Republican officials both in Mississippi and the nation: Just last year, Sherman gave the maximum individual contribution allowed ($5,000) to Wicker’s campaign. California voting records indicate Sherman was a registered Republican through 2016. In 2008, Sherman and Ward hosted a fundraiser at their Meridian farm for then presidential candidate and current U.S. Sen. John McCain. In 2006, he gave $2,000 to former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott. In 2003, he gave $500 to now U.S. Attorney General and former U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions.
Last week, Jackson attorney and longtime Democratic operative Sam Begley filed a petition with the state Democratic Party seeking to disqualify Sherman from the race, mostly because of the Wicker donation.
Sherman, in the interview with Mississippi Today, called the petition a “laughable attempt by an opposing campaign to discredit my message.”
“Roger Wicker calls my wife last year, and he said, ‘Chris McDaniel is coming for me,’ ” Sherman said. “At the time, before Doug Jones (the Alabama Democrat who won a U.S. Senate seat in 2017), before Democrats had any viable candidates and we’d gotten our butts kicked for 30 plus years, nobody was thinking we could elect a Democratic senator. So that binary decision – and I’d do it again – was to stop Chris McDaniel.
“Clearly I don’t like Roger Wicker, and I want to run against him,” Sherman said. “All that was then. The world is totally different. Donald Trump has created a totally different world than it was last summer. Doug Jones has created a different world. It (the donation to Wicker) was to stop McDaniel. I’m really scratching my head. I know David Baria is building his whole campaign around that.”
Baria, the state House minority leader from Bay St. Louis who is also running in the Democratic primary, sent a campaign email last week that highlighted the same questions raised by Begley in the petition.
“David (Baria) entered this race to give Mississippians a true choice in November, a choice between doing things the same old way or doing things to benefit all Mississippians,” said Brandon Jones, Baria’s campaign manager and law partner. “While David was in the Legislature fighting for our public schools and better access to health care, Mr. Sherman was hosting fundraisers for President Obama’s opponent.
“Mr. Sherman represents the same tired and transactional way of doing business,” Jones continued. “He says, ‘This guy helped me so I gave him money.’ That’s not leadership, that’s a payoff, and Mississippi has had enough of that.”
Sherman told Mississippi Today he donated to Lott because of his policy help with the Hope Village for Children, in Meridian, founded by Ward to offer specialized treatment programs and facilities for neglected and abused children and their families. Sherman said he donated to Sessions because the former senator had been helpful on policy related to a business deal Sherman and his business partner were trying to complete.
When he announced his candidacy, Sherman said he “believes solutions transcend party labels.”
“Formulating and implementing an action plan that results in good jobs AND good schools AND proper health care — that is about making Mississippians’ lives better — is what matters, not whether there is a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ after your name,” Sherman said in the candidacy announcement. “Anybody who is supportive of enhancing the lives of those of us that live in Mississippi is a friend, not a foe – regardless of party affiliation.”
In the interview last week, Sherman also pushed back on questions raised about his residency. In the petition, Begley wrote that Sherman should be disqualified “on the grounds that he is not now, nor will he be on the date of the primary election, an inhabitant of the state of Mississippi.”
Land records at the Lauderdale County courthouse indicate that Sherman first purchased property just outside Meridian in 1992 – though the address Sherman listed when he signed the paperwork was in Beverly Hills, Calif. Several of Ward’s family members live on the land, Sherman and several others in Meridian said. Satellite images online show at least two homes on the land parcels that belong to him, and three mailboxes face the main road at the gated entrance to the property. Several magazines have written about the property and events hosted there by Sherman and Ward.
“This is our home. We don’t own another home. This is it,” Sherman said. “We have lived here full time since the fall of 2016. That’s where my cars are registered, it’s where I registered to vote. Prior to that, we’ve had a home here for 25 years – since 1992, and we’ve spent a lot of time here.”
When asked why he didn’t vote in the 2016 presidential general election, Sherman said he was out of the state: “I think my daughter was sick. I was in Providence (Rhode Island, where Sherman’s daughter is in college) the night of the election in 2016. She didn’t feel well. She blew out her knee and she had surgery.”
Sherman talked little policy in the 40-minute interview last week. He mentioned wanting to expand public-private partnerships, particularly in the area of healthcare, a sector in which he has worked for 20 years. He used the term “kitchen-table issues,” made popular by Doug Jones last year.
“We should have better healthcare,” Sherman said in his announcement release. “There should be more jobs. Our kids should have reasons to stay here after finishing their schooling, and there needs to be greater opportunity for all.”
Sherman said he first became interested in running for office after an early 2018 meeting in Jackson with the Hope Village executive director and the state’s Child Protection Services Director, Jess Dickinson. Hope Village wasn’t getting many children referred from the state agency, Sherman said, and in the meeting Dickinson talked about budget woes that the agency has been working through.
With that inkling of a bid for political office, Sherman then met with Democratic Party Chairman Bobby Moak. Initially considering running for the congressional seat that Rep. Gregg Harper is giving up this year, Sherman said that Moak, who cannot publicly support any candidate until after the primary election, suggested a statewide race might be the better option.
“(Moak) discussed with me that my value proposition was different, kind of like (Conor) Lamb was in Pennsylvania (a moderate Democrat who won a special congressional election earlier this year). A new kind of message,” Sherman said.
The moment that eventually sealed the deal, Sherman said, was in January after he spent an evening with newly elected Alabama Sen. Doug Jones at the Winter-Hamer Dinner, an annual Democratic Party fundraiser. Sherman and Ward sat at the head table with Jones, who encouraged Sherman to run, he said.
By the time Sherman filed qualifying paperwork on Feb. 28 with no formal announcement, he had already hired Perkins and Trippi, Jones’ former campaign staffers. Sherman’s current communications director, Trey Forrest, also worked on the Jones campaign in 2017.
Sherman later loaned himself the $500,000 to pay the campaign team and the initial expenses. Those expenses were not listed in the first quarter campaign finance documents with the Federal Election Commission, and the only other donation to Sherman’s campaign in the first quarter was a $1,000 donation from Perkins.
“It was meant to make a statement as to how seriously I take this and how important it is to me,” Sherman said. “I’ve been fortunate to bet right on a bunch of the things I’ve invested my time in, and my wife’s done well, and we were able to do it. We look at it as an investment in the state.”
As the unconventional aspects of his candidacy continue to be called into question, Sherman continues to campaign. Last week, he was in Pascagoula for meetings with local officials and an NAACP annual fundraiser, in Starkville for a candidates dinner, and in Southaven for another campaign event.
“Everybody I’ve talked to has said, ‘You’re going to help us get jobs, help us fix our health care, help rural hospitals from not closing and work on our education system.’ ” Sherman said. “I don’t know why you need to have been here full time for 25 years to do that. I’m in the startup business. You go down the learning curve, you find out what you need to solve something, and you solve it.
“I didn’t spend 10 years studying those different things,” Sherman said. “You surround yourself with the necessary resources and you execute.”