Sen. John Horhn, D-Hinds, right, is not making an endorsement, but said “we have to be strategic” as voters decide the Democrat who has the best chance to win.

Attorney General Jim Hood might not have to win Hinds, the state’s most populous county, to capture the Democratic nomination for governor, but doing so would make his path to victory much easier.

Trying to stand in the way of that victory is Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith, who appears to be running as a foil to Hood and has accused Hood’s office of committing “a modern day lynching” against him. Hood’s office unsuccessfully tried  Smith three times – once in Rankin County for aggravated stalking stemming from a domestic incident involving his ex-girlfriend and twice in Hinds County for conspiracy to hinder prosecution. Those trials concluded in 2018. Earlier this year Smith shocked most observers by qualifying to run for governor instead of seeking re-election.

From left: Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith

Despite the AG’s numerous criminal probes of a prominent Hinds County elected official, many members of the Hinds County Democratic legislative delegation contacted by Mississippi Today said they are supporting Hood, who has won four statewide races for attorney general. Some chose not to comment. None said they were supporting Smith, though Mississippi Today was unable to reach three legislators who represent portions of the city of Jackson or Hinds County.

State Sen. Sollie Norwood, D-Jackson, Hood’s political director, believes the attorney general will have strong support in Hinds County.

“He has always been a friend,” Norwood said. “And I don’t mean just during the election.”

A poll the Hood campaign released this week backs up Norwood’s optimism. Hickman Analytics, a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic pollster, shows Hood with more than 60 percent support for the August Democratic primary. None of the other eight Democratic candidates had more than 7 percent.

And in the November general election, Hickman’s poll shows Hood, Mississippi’s only statewide elected Democrat, leads Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, the Republican favorite, 45-40.

The poll consisted of 604 likely voters, conducted via telephone interviews from May 5 to May 9. Mississippi Today could not obtain the demographics of those polls.

But according to a Hickman memo both Reeves and Hood have strong statewide name identification, but Hood’s favorability rating is 13 percent higher and Reeves unfavorable rating is 6 percent higher. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

When asked about the Smith issue, Norwood said, “I am thinking that will linger for a while. But what we have to do is separate the two. We understand and respect Robert Shuler Smith and the position he was put in, but we have to separate the two. This is about the governor’s race. That is how we are going to look at it.”

Some Hinds County legislators said Hood is the Democrats’ best chance to win the governor’s office since then Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove won in 1999 before being upended by Haley Barbour in 2003.

“I feel that Hinds County residents realize that Jim Hood has the best chance of winning the governor’s office among the Democrats who are running,” said Rep. Earle Banks, D-Jackson. “I think that is the message of the Hinds County Democratic legislative caucus, and we will continue to express that opinion.”

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, said of Hood, “I think he is the strongest candidate in the field for either party. I think he is the right choice to be our next governor.”

Smith, in text messages, contends he has strong support not only in Hinds County, but across the state.

“Yes, I have numerous supporters across the state as well as endorsements. The constituents across their (Hinds County legislative) districts support me for governor,” Smith said.

A candidate in the Democratic primary does not have to win Hinds County to win the nomination for governor, but to do so without the state’s most populous county would be difficult.

In 2015, Hinds County voters made up 10.4 percent of the 299,368 votes in the Democratic primary for governor. In 2011, Hinds County comprised 8.8 percent of the 412,530 votes in the primary for governor.

This August there is a likelihood that Hinds voters will make up a larger share of the total votes for governor than it did in 2015. In many cases the turnout in the primaries is driven by local elections, such as for sheriff and supervisors. In Tippah County in north Mississippi, for instance, nearly all the local officials have switched parties and will run for re-election as Republicans. As more local officials across the state switch to the Republican Party and their challengers also are running as Republicans, the primary is expected to continue to grow at the expense of turnout in the Democratic primary.

Hinds County remains a Democratic stronghold.

Velesha Williams is seen outside of the Jackson Police Department at the Metro Center Thursday, February 14, 2019.

Velesha P. Williams of Flora in Madison County, next door to Hinds County, also is running for governor and could potentially siphon votes out of the metro area. She served as an administrator at Jackson State University and is a retired military officer.

In an interview with Mississippi Today in early March, she referred to Hood as a “Dixiecrat,” referring to a term from the 1950s and ’60s when white segregationist Democrats controlled many of the Southern statehouses and congressional seats.

“I don’t think Mississippi needs a Dixiecrat. I don’t think a Dixiecrat is right for Mississippi, not now. We’ve had enough Dixiecrats. It’s time to get serious about helping all Mississippians and not be pretentious about who you want to assist, when you’re going to assist and why you’re going to assist. I’m going to be fighting for all Mississippians,” she said.

Others disagree.

“I am supporting Jim Hood,” said Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson. “I think he has the best interest of the state in mind as well as the constituents right here.”

Rep. Jarvis Dortch, D-Jackson, like some other Hinds legislators, said he is bothered by the Smith prosecution and that Hood should not take Hinds County for granted and should address issues about the prosecution.

Still, Dortch said Hood was the Democrats’ best chance to deal with issues he cares about, such as expanding Medicaid to cover primarily the working poor and funding public education.

“To me he will be a great governor,” Dortch reasoned. “His views as governor are more aligned to me than his views as attorney general.”

Still newly elected state Rep. Ronnie Crudup Jr. of  Jackson said he wants to talk to Hood about the Smith case and other issues before making an official endorsement. Some other legislators from Jackson, such as Reps. Debra Gibbs, Deborah Dixon and Kathy Sykes said they are focused on other issues, such as their own re-election efforts.

The Hood campaign and others say Hood is not taking Hinds County for granted. He has been meeting with community leaders in recent weeks. He recently appeared on the radio show of Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson.

Horhn also said he is focused on his own campaign and is not making an endorsement. But said “we have to be strategic” as voters decide who has the best chance to win on the Democratic side.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.