Waller believes time is right for his gubernatorial campaign: ‘We will be competitive’

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Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

Former Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr., questions a lawyer as he argues before the state Supreme Court in Jackson, Miss in this file photo. Waller announced in November that he was stepping down from the bench. 

While William Waller Jr. admits he had long considered running for governor, he said he was not contemplating such a campaign when he announced in November he was stepping down from his post as chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court.

“Five months is not much time” to prepare to run for governor, said Waller referring to roughly the amount of time between when he recently made his decision to run as a Republican and when the party primary election will be in August.

But Waller said too many people came to him urging him to consider running.

“My intent was to teach and be involved with access to justice and things like that,” he told Mississippi Today. “I had lot of calls, visits, letters urging me to run for governor.”

He said, “I looked and I did not see any ideas, any programs (from the announced candidates) to address the problems. We can’t stick our head in the sand.”

Waller said, if elected, he will focus on the issues of improving infrastructure, providing better access to health care and improving education and work force development.

Waller, age 67, said he became interested in politics and running for governor while campaigning as a college student for his father who served as governor from 1972-76.

He spoke with members of the media from what was his father’s office in the Waller & Waller law office in downtown Jackson. Still on the walls are multiple photos of his father with national icons, including a picture with then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan at Jackson Memorial Stadium during an Ole Miss football game when then-Democratic Gov. Bill Waller agreed to host the Republican Governor’s Association.

Other photos include Waller with music icon Johnny Cash after Cash performed at Parchman Penitentiary.

Despite his political lineage, Waller will be considered the underdog in the Republican primary against Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who has been preparing a campaign for governor for years and has a war chest of about $7 million.

Waller said he will raise the campaign funds needed to run a successful campaign.

“I think people are going to respond, and I think we will be competitive – will be competitive,” he said. “The reality is people vote, and I think the people of Mississippi are independent, and I don’t think they can be sold. My campaign is going to be courthouse to courthouse, store to store, county to county. I am going to take my message to them.”

He added, “We will have a competitive campaign.”

Judicial campaigns are non-partisan, though, he was endorsed in his Central District campaigns for the Supreme Court by the state Republican Party.

“Given the undeniable landscape of this year’s election, I am the conservative Republican with the best chance of winning,” he said in a campaign release.

Waller was referencing the fact that public polls have shown Reeves trailing Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, though, most recent polling has shown the contest virtually tied.

Waller said he will support annual pay raises for teachers until their salary reaches the Southeastern average. He also said he will work on efforts to retool education to include more workforce training for students not going to college.

Before expanding school choice, Waller said that the current charter school laws, which were passed in recent years, should be given time to work.

In the area of health care, he said consideration of expanding Medicaid, as is allowed under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, to provide health coverage to primarily the working poor “should be on the table.” He said if Medicaid expansion occurs it should be in a form that would not result in an increase in taxes on the general public. He cited contributions by health care providers and recipients of an expanded Medicaid program as possible ways to generate the 10 percent in state funds needed to draw down the 90 percent federal match.

“Mississippi has made progress, but the reality is our state continues to face looming challenges that will never be solved by indifference, soundbites, petty politics or self-interest,” he said. “Anybody who has been paying attention over the last seven years realizes there is not a cohesive working relationship between the governor, the House and the Senate. That’s the truth.”

Waller describes himself as “a linear thinker” who considered going to West Point, but opted instead for Mississippi State University where he joined the ROTC and later served 30 years in the Mississippi Army National Guard and the United States Army Reserves where he reached the rank of brigadier general.

He served three terms on the Supreme Court, winning three elections. He said his active involvement with the Legislature on efforts to improve the state’s judiciary, such as expanding drug courts and expanding the electronic filing system, will give him the experience to deal with the Legislature as governor.

“I won’t be focused on who gets the credit or makes the next best headline,” he said. “Instead, I will be focused on getting things done.”