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Some of Mississippi’s wealthiest and most powerful people stood in a long line outside Bravo, an Italian restaurant in northeast Jackson, on the evening of Sept. 10, 2018, waiting for the chance to speak with Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.
Reeves, who is running for governor, holds court at the restaurant one night every fall to fundraise for his campaigns. Last fall’s event, a little more than a year from the 2019 general election, featured a who’s who of Mississippi business and politics.
That night, Joe Frank Sanderson, chief-executive officer of the poultry giant Sanderson Farms, wrote a $50,000 check, according to Reeves’ campaign finance report. Joseph Canizaro, a New Orleans-based real estate developer with close ties to leaders of the Mississippi Republican Party, and his wife Sue Ellen wrote separate $25,000 checks to Reeves.
People with future political aspirations, operatives, several powerful lobbyists, leaders of influential political action committees and representatives of some of the state’s largest corporations also attended the event and cut checks.
By the end of the dinner, the Reeves campaign had collected at least $250,000 in donations, which accounted for about 15 percent of the campaign’s total contributions in 2018.
Reeves’ campaign finance reports provide a glimpse into the most successful and sophisticated fundraising effort for state office in modern Mississippi history.
Reeves raised $1.7 million in 2018, giving him $6.7 million to spend going into 2019. In 2003, when Republican lobbyist Haley Barbour defeated incumbent Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, Barbour raised $10.9 million and spent $11.3 million.
Of Reeves’ 2018 fundraising total, $1.1 million, or 63 percent, in contributions came from major donations of $5,000 or more, according to a Mississippi Today analysis.
Mississippi election law does not limit the amount of money individuals or political action committees can give to political campaigns. Corporations are limited to $1,000 per candidate per year, but corporations have no limit on donations to political action committees.
Sanderson and the Canizaros, who gave a combined $100,000 in 2018, are among the top individual donors.
Marty Davidson, a Meridian resident who is chairman of Southern Pipe and Supply, donated $50,000. John Nau, CEO of Texas-based Silver Eagle Distributors, the nation’s largest distributor of Anheuser-Busch products, also gave $50,000.
Reeves received several $25,000 donations in 2018, including from Ridgeland attorney Robert Wells, Houston-based oil industry CEO Chuck Scianna, Columbus Recycling president Gregory Rader, and Amory seed company owner Richard Wax. Bill Yates, CEO of Yates Construction, gave Reeves $20,000 last year.
Reeves received large contributions from PACs and corporations. Centene Corporation, one of the nation’s largest health insurers, gave Reeves $50,000 in 2018. Bully Bloc, a pro-Mississippi State University political action committee, also gave $50,000.
The Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi PAC gave Reeves $35,000, and the Mississippi Healthcare Association PAC and the Jones Companies LLC gave $25,000 each. Dozens of PACs and corporations gave between $5,000 and $15,000 in 2018, and dozens more gave between $1,000 and $5,000.
Reeves’ report also suggest that the Republican Party establishment, in a show of party unity, are also lining up behind the lieutenant governor.
On Dec. 17, the Republican State Leadership Committee PAC contributed $10,000. Gov. Phil Bryant, who is term-limited after this year, transferred his leftover campaign cash to a PAC before state election law changed in 2017. Bryant’s PAC, called Imagine Mississippi, wrote $5,000 check to Reeves in late December of 2018.
Republican Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney’s campaign committee gave Reeves $1,000 in September. Madison attorney David McRae, a Republican running for state treasurer this year, wrote Reeves a $5,000 check the day of the Bravo dinner.
Lucien Smith, chairman of the Republican Party, wrote Reeves a $1,000 check on the night of the Bravo dinner. A week after Hood formally announced his bid for governor, former state GOP Chairman Joe Nosef wrote a $1,000 check to Reeves. Jim Herring, another former Republican Party chairman, also donated to Reeves in 2018.
Reeves’ father, Terry Reeves, founder of commercial HVAC company Climate Masters, twice contributed to his son’s campaign in 2018. Climate Masters gave $1,000 on the night of the Bravo dinner, and Brandon-based Reeves Real Estate, run by Terry Reeves and Tate’s brother Todd Reeves, also gave $1,000.
Mississippi billionaire Tommy Duff, who was rumored in 2018 as a possible Republican primary challenger to Reeves, wrote a $2,500 check on Dec. 11. Knoxville resident Dee Haslam, co-owner of the Cleveland Browns, also gave $2,500.
On Dec. 13, a donor listed as “Anonymous 2018” gave Reeves $300. No mailing address, name of employer or occupation is listed with the entry — an apparent violation of state campaign finance law that states a campaign must list specific identifying information of individuals contributing $200 or more.
Leah Rupp Smith, communications director for the Secretary of State’s office, said her office encourages candidates to list the contributor’s name, address, occupation and employer to comply with the legal requirement that candidates disclose all donations over $200.
Smith referred additional questions to the state ethics commission, the agency a 2017 state campaign-finance law assigned enforcement matters.
Tom Hood, executive director of the ethics commission, told Mississippi Today that he is not participating in proceedings or answering questions about the 2019 governor’s race. Hood is the brother of Attorney General Jim Hood, who is running as a Democrat for governor.
Tom Hood referred questions about the Reeves filing to the commission’s assistant director, but said the agency has little authority when it comes to enforcing campaign-finance requirements.
“Essentially, we can only fine people for filing late and ask a court to make them file,” Hood said in a statement. “We do not have any authority to penalize candidates who fail to complete their reports correctly or otherwise enforce (state law). Most violations of the campaign finance law are misdemeanors and would have to be handled by a law enforcement agency and prosecutor.”