In governor’s race, Waller replicates father’s 1971 strategy that landed him in the Governor’s Mansion

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Bill Waller Jr.

Bill Waller Jr. stands between his father, left, and U.S. Sen. Jim Eastland during his father’s successful 1971 campaign for governor.

A few days after his father was elected governor in November 1971, Bill Waller Jr. sat down with a reporter from The Clarion-Ledger.

Waller, who studied political science at Mississippi State University at the time, played an integral role in his father’s upset victory that fall, spending nights and weekends on the campaign trail, giving as many as four stump speeches a day and interviewing with the state’s largest newspapers.

But a few hours after the victory parties and frenzied campaign schedules died down, the reporter’s attention turned to the younger Waller’s future.

“I do have political ambitions,” Waller said with a grin, earning the sub-headline in the statewide newspaper: “BILL JR. IS AMBITIOUS.”

Now 48 years later, the extent of those political ambitions have been realized. Waller’s insider role in his father’s 1971 campaign — including the direct exposure to the strategy behind his father’s upset of the political establishment of the day — steers his own bid for governor.

In 1971, Lt. Gov. Charlie Sullivan was broadly considered heir to Gov. John Bell Williams. One newspaper columnist wrote at the time that Sullivan was “acknowledged by all the smart money as the powerhouse man to beat for governor.”

Sullivan spent more than a decade working toward winning the governor’s race. He built coalitions among the Jackson political establishment, which controlled the state’s spending and regulations. He raised tens of thousands of dollars after becoming lieutenant governor in 1967, collecting more in campaign contributions than any of his challengers. His name had appeared on statewide ballots in three previous election cycles and he extensively traveled the state, granting his candidacy broad name identification.

Then came Bill Waller Sr., who quickly built upon the foundation of his unsuccessful 1967 gubernatorial campaign. The messaging focus of Waller’s 1971 campaign was defeating the very political establishment — the “Capitol Street Gang,” as Waller coined it — that had built up and endorsed Sullivan.

Waller’s anti-establishment message resonated with hundreds of thousands of Mississippians, and he shocked the state by defeating Sullivan in what a newspaper columnist called “the political upset of the century.”

“Under the existing political system, you had to stand in line and wait your turn to be governor,” Waller Sr. later wrote in a memoir. “It was obvious to me and to the people who encouraged me to run that Mississippi was standing still, and that the old guard could not get the state moving again, and certainly not get it moving in the right direction. Our leadership had developed the notion that an significant change was not good and should be resisted.”

He continued: “(My candidacy was successful) because of my desire to offer the people an alternative to the do-nothing, hold-onto-what-you-have machine and to give ordinary citizens an opportunity to participate in their government.”

Nearly 50 years later, another lieutenant governor is, by many accounts, heir apparent to the Governor’s Mansion. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has spent more than a decade working toward a 2019 run for governor, building coalitions within the Jackson political establishment and earning endorsements of key Republican Party figures like Gov. Phil Bryant, former Congressman Gregg Harper and 300 local party leaders. Reeves has more than $6 million to spend this year, about five times more than any other gubernatorial candidate.

‘I’m very proud today’: The man behind Tate Reeves’ rise to power

Looking to shock the state himself and defeat Reeves in the August primary, Waller has taken pages directly from his father’s winning playbook. In a social media advertisement purchased in April, Waller said: “I don’t need $7 million from special interests like my opponent. I need you, and the support of people like you who want a conservative Republican who isn’t afraid to talk about the big issues facing our state — and who has the ability to win in November.”

“I looked (at 2019 candidates) and I did not see any ideas, any programs to address the problems. We can’t stick our head in the sand,” Waller told Mississippi Today in March. “I think people are going to respond, and I think we will be competitive. 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.”

Waller’s campaign headquarters is in downtown Jackson — a block off the notorious Capitol Street — at the law firm he and his father founded in 1977. Though the former governor passed away in 2011, the office is a time capsule littered with mementos of the elder’s term as governor.

The Republican Governors Conference at the 1973 Ole Miss-Tennessee football game in Jackson. From left: Christopher Bond of Missouri, Ronald Reagan of California, Gov. Bill Waller Sr., Winfield Dunn of Tennessee, and Jack Williams of Arizona.

In the hallway leading to Waller’s office, there’s a photo of the governor meeting with President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office. Inside Waller’s office is a photo of the former governor hosting four Republican governors, including then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan, at the 1973 Ole Miss-Tennessee football game in Jackson.

Waller’s made a point to not change the decor or arrangement of the office since his dad’s death in 2011. He now works from his father’s desk. The pictures and art hanging on the walls mostly haven’t been touched, and many of the books on the built-in shelves haven’t been moved.

Inside this office is where Waller and his team have crafted his 2019 campaign strategy. A side-by-side comparison of soundbites from the elder Waller in 1971 and his son in 2019 are striking.

Parallels between 1971 and 2019 strategy

In his 1971 campaign, Waller Sr. bemoaned Mississippi’s public schools and low teacher pay.

“At the top of my agenda was the improvement of the state’s public school system,” the elder Waller wrote in his memoir. “I made a solemn pledge to the people of Mississippi that we would provide our children an adequate education by qualified teachers who would no longer be the lowest paid in the nation.”

Since mid-April of this year, Waller has toured the state to listen to the concerns of public school teachers, who at every town hall stop have focused on their lowest-in-the-nation teacher pay.

“When I was making the decision to run, the issue of teacher pay raise came up and I felt like waiting for an election year was not good government and was not productive to having a quality professional teaching force,” he told Mississippi Today at an April campaign stop in Hattiesburg. “I said enough is enough, let’s work every year until we reach the Southeastern average.”

In 1971, Waller Sr. sharply criticized Sullivan and other politicians who failed to address the state’s roads and bridges.

Bill Waller Sr. campaigning at the Neshoba County Fair in 1971.

“The reason why we’re so strong in the governor’s race is because the (crisis) and highways is worse today than it was four years ago,” Waller said in a July 1971 speech at the Neshoba County Fair. “The present machine politicians in Mississippi and everyone who is a part of that machine has failed to deliver the highways. In fact, they’ve failed to deliver a plan for highways, and this is why the people want a change. The people who want highways are supporting Bill Waller in vast numbers across Mississippi.”

In April of this year, Waller echoed his father’s refrain on infrastructure from nearly 50 years ago, criticizing Reeves and other politicians who have failed, he says, to address the state’s roads and bridges.

“The $250 million passed in special session last year is literally a raindrop in a puddle,” Waller said in an April gubernatorial debate at Mississippi State University. “We need a bold, aggressive program. … We need to move quickly to appropriate money. The figure is $1 billion. That’s a lot of money, but we’ve got some huge needs. There is no greater factor for industry or tourism than our infrastructure and roads. It’s critical. We’ve got to move as quickly as we can to do that. From my standpoint, we’re in an emergency situation, our house is on fire, and everyone needs to focus on (infrastructure) so we can get Mississippi back rolling again.”

In 1971, Waller Sr. decried a long-standing focus on businesses based outside of Mississippi, telling a gathering of small business owners in August 1970 that it was “time for our state to act in aid of Mississippi businessmen in the same manner and to the same extent that it has for out-of-state industry for more than 30 years.”

In April, Waller Jr. echoed his father’s desire to shift focus to businesses based in Mississippi.

“I think that tax breaks to out-of-state companies, in some places, are offensive to me,” Waller said during the April debate. “I would like to refocus (the Mississippi Development Authority, the state’s economic development agency) on businesses right here in Mississippi that are employing Mississippians right now and would have almost an immediate impact on the economy.”

In June 1971, Waller Sr. told the Civitan Club in Senatobia that the state should focus more on what he called the “talent drain,” or the trend of young people leaving Mississippi for better professional opportunities.

“We must find a way to stop the drain of young talent from our state,” Waller said, as quoted in The Clarion-Ledger. “Young and old alike must have an opportunity to a goal in life.”

In 2019, the younger Waller has made curbing the state’s “brain drain,” as it has become colloquially known, one of his top platforms.

“I would like to see us be creative in dealing with some of the student debt,” Waller said at the Mississippi State debate in April. “I think we could target areas of employment in the state and create an incentive for people to stay in the state so we could stop the brain drain and also make college more accessible.”

The effects of the strategy 

For now, Reeves has declined to publicly acknowledge Waller’s candidacy or campaign strategy, instead choosing to focus his own messaging and advertising on Jim Hood, the fourth-term attorney general who’s the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. The third GOP primary challenger, freshman state Rep. Robert Foster, has also received the cold shoulder from Reeves.

At the beginning of 2019, Reeves reported more than $6 million in campaign contributions — a figure that’s expected to balloon ahead of the August primary. He’s already spent tens of thousands on social media ads and has purchased expensive television ads in key markets across the state.

Waller acknowledges he won’t come close to Reeves’ fundraising totals but has pointed out that Mississippians have responded well to his campaign message thus far.

The day after the general election in 1971, after Waller had defeated Sullivan in the primary and was elected governor, Sullivan spoke candidly with a reporter at the Delta Democrat-Times about his campaign and why he thought he lost.

“I got the conclusion that a lot of our people had regarded me as always being a very aggressive individual, and they were disappointed,” Sullivan said. “This time I was a lieutenant governor of whom people had grown tired, who had spoken so much all over the state that there was no novelty or interest when I would go somewhere… I know many experts would argue that you can’t get overexposed, and that may be true if the exposure can always be interesting or different or intriguing, like some of the film work (Waller) used. But if you’re the lieutenant governor and you’re performing a ceremonial function, you can’t do it. As bored as some of those people were with Sullivan making a speech, they weren’t as bored with it as Sullivan was.”