Democrats’ field of candidates soon will no longer be secret but cutting into GOP’s legislative advantage an uphill climb

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Rep. David Baria speaks during a press conference before this week’s special session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Jackson Thursday, August 23, 2018.

Democrats face long odds in re-capturing either chamber of the Mississippi Legislature later this year in the November general election.

The more realistic question might be can Democrats cut into the three-fifths or better advantage Republicans currently hold in both the House and Senate?

The deadline to qualify to run for office this year is 5 p.m. Friday. It is difficult to ascertain the quality or quantity of the Democratic candidates for legislative seats because the state party has refused to provide a list of candidates. That list, presumably, will not be available until it is turned over to the Secretary of State’s office after 5 p.m. Friday.

State Chair Bobby Moak has said the Democrats will offer to voters a large field of qualified candidates.

“We are actively recruiting candidates all around the state in districts where we think we would be able to elect Democrats,” said Rep. David Baria of Bay St. Louis, the House Democratic leader, who has voiced opposition to his party’s decision not to provide internet updates of its slate of candidates.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn speaks before Governor Phil Bryant’s State of the State address in the House of Representatives Chamber of the Mississippi State Capitol Tuesday, January 15, 2019.

On the other side, Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, expressed optimism that Republicans will perform well in the November general elections.

“We are paying attention to all the seats,” Gunn said. “We are evaluating each seat and trying to find quality candidates.”

In the 122 member House, at least 10 members are not seeking re-election – either retiring or running for another post. The real turnover appears to be in the 52 member Senate where at least 11 members are not seeking re-elections.

Some of that turnover could prove problematic for Democrats trying to pick up seats.

Two Chickasaw County legislators from northeast Mississippi – Sen. Russell Jolly, D-Houston, and Rep. Preston Sullivan, D-Okolona – are not seeking re-election.

These are seats where the two incumbents would have been viewed as the heavy favorites. In open races, the Republicans think they have a chance to capture those seats. The same is true in Senate District 5 in northeast Mississippi where long-time Democratic incumbent, J.P. Wilemon of Belmont has opted to retire.

Perhaps the decision of Sens. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, and Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, not to seek re-election would give Democrats similar pickup opportunities.

Other key members not seeking re-election include Sen. Tommy Gollott, R-Biloxi, who will be stepping down after 52 years in the Senate and before then in the House.

A factor in who qualifies to run for legislative seats could be a November opinion by Attorney General Jim Hood stating that rules preventing public retirees, such as educators and state employees, from running for legislative seats while drawing their pension were in conflict with state law.

The Public Employees Retirement System Board of Trustees has stated it will work to change that regulation as long as it does not conflict with federal tax law.

Based on that anticipated rules change, various education groups are saying they hope to recruit retired educators to run for the Legislature this year.

Leslie Fye of Starkville, a board member for the Mississippi Public Education PAC, said because of the late time frame in which the PERS Board made the ruling and because there is still at least some uncertainty about whether the change will actually be made, some retired educators are still contemplating whether they will run for the Legislature this year.

But she said, “We have a good handful who will run. We are waiting for March 1 (qualifying deadline) to see just how many.”

She said the potential candidates include both retired teachers and administrators.

The Mississippi Public Education PAC is non-partisan. So it is likely that there will  be some retirees qualifying in both parties to run for legislative seats.

The Parents Campaign, another pro education group, on its web site called the AG’s opinion that retired educators and state employees can serve in the Legislature and draw their pension “a game changers” for public education.