First governor’s debate won’t be broadcast live; Foster, Waller to face off but Reeves declines invitation

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Rep. Robert Foster and former Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. will face off in the first GOP gubernatorial debate April 2 at Mississippi State University.

Officials at Mississippi State University have nixed plans for a Jackson television station to broadcast the first gubernatorial debate of 2019.

The debate, scheduled for April 2, will feature two of the three Republican candidates for governor: Rep. Robert Foster and former Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a third candidate vying to win the GOP primary in August, declined an invitation to attend the debate.

The debate’s sponsors, the Mississippi State University College Republicans and Department of Political Science, worked with WJTV to broadcast the event, emails Mississippi Today obtained show. But when the station requested broadcast access with the university’s administration on March 21, top officials canceled plans for the live broadcast citing a scheduling conflict and too little time to plan logistics.

“There were two problems: It was a late window to take care of security, parking, logistics, and run it through legal and security, but it’s also on the same day as our very significant Phi Beta Kappa induction event, which will require most of our office’s resources that day,” said Sid Salter, chief communications officer at Mississippi State University.

Salter continued: “An institution of this size is like a battleship, it doesn’t turn on a dime. We’re not going to turn an independent production company loose in one of our buildings to put together such a broadcast without oversight from the University Television Center, which is part of this office and will be tied up with the Phi Beta Kappa production.”

Televised debates have long served as one of the best ways for candidates to receive broad exposure. This would be particularly helpful to Foster, a freshman legislator, as well as Waller, whose father was Mississippi governor but, as a state supreme court justice, does not often appear on television. 

“It is unfortunate that the people of Mississippi who can’t attend won’t be afforded the opportunity to watch the debate live on TV and educate themselves on who will be their next CEO,” Foster told Mississippi Today. “Any censorship of the debate is not only creating a disservice to our state but is also not in the best interests of our taxpayers.”

We believe debates are good for promoting a discussion of key issues in this election, and they’re even better when the public can watch and listen to debates,” said Jared Solomon, communications director for Waller’s campaign. “We always support debates being broadcast on television, radio and online to provide transparency and public confidence in the political process.”

Reeves, the president of the Senate, cited legislative obligations when asked last month why he wouldn’t participate in the April 2 debate. The Legislature completed its work for the year on March 29, more than a week earlier than scheduled.

Reeves, long considered the front-runner for the Republican nomination, has close ties with Mississippi State University. Though he is an alumnus of Millsaps College, Reeves is a noted Bulldogs football fan, often seen in the halls of the skyboxes at Davis Wade Stadium.

Rhonda Keenum, wife of university President Mark Keenum, sits on Reeves’ campaign finance committee. Todd Reeves, the lieutenant governor’s brother, sits on the Bulldog Club board of directors.

Bully Bloc, a powerful group of alumni and friends of the university, wrote Reeves’ campaign a $50,000 check in 2018 after giving several smaller donations in previous years.

When asked if Reeves influenced the university’s decision to block the televised debate, Salter said: “Absolutely not. We have heard nothing out of any of the three Republican campaigns about this. Nothing.”