HATTIESBURG — You wouldn’t have known it was 5:30 a.m. by Bill Waller Jr.’s swagger as he walked into a Hattiesburg Hardee’s for his first campaign stop in a recent 17-hour campaign day.
Waller, who retired in January after 21 years on the Mississippi Supreme Court, entered the restaurant with the confidence of a retired underdog with little to lose. This whole campaign for him is about giving Mississippians another option, about offering what he says are pragmatic solutions that may not be popular but are necessary for the future of the state.
He made his presence known that morning with a booming, “How y’all doing,” and the 15 or so men who meet here for breakfast six days a week turned to face him. As a campaign staffer ordered Waller a coffee and smoked sausage biscuit, Waller made sure to shake everyone’s hands before sitting down at their table.
By the time the biscuit found its way to his seat, Waller had already fielded two criticisms about one of his Republican primary opponents, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.
“I’m supporting Bill Waller because he has a vision for a better Mississippi,” Willis Lott, former president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, told a reporter as the breakfast group listened. “Tate Reeves, in his years as lieutenant governor, has not shown that he has a vision. Plus he’s arrogant, and a lot of people know it.”
Lott slipped a $1,000 check to a campaign staffer before Waller left the breakfast.
As about 30 more men and women trickled in over the next hour to greet Waller at the Hardee’s, more criticisms of Reeves were leveled, unprompted. By the end of the day, Waller heard more than two dozen people talk negatively about his opponent in some regard.
That sentiment, Waller says, inspired him to rethink his campaign strategy.
“I’ve traveled a lot and have met more people than I can count, and there’s one thing that I haven’t heard much at all: ‘I’m voting for Tate because I think he’s the best candidate,'” Waller told Mississippi Today. “If there was a 1,000 people I talk to, there would be two or three of those. That’s it.”
Emboldened by scores of voters who daily express their dislike of Reeves, Waller is no longer focusing solely on offering his own policy solutions for the state’s problems. He’s increasingly pointing his finger at Reeves, who continues amplifying what Waller calls “failed policies” that fostered those very problems.
A Baptist deacon who blesses every meal and begins campaign meetings in prayer, Waller has been apprehensive about disparaging his opponents, spending weeks repeating the refrain: “I won’t go negative.” But in the last week or so, noted in extensive recent interviews with Mississippi Today and remarks later at a Mississippi Press Association event, his hesitation about knocking Reeves is subsiding.
Speaking about the lottery to a group of reporters, editors and publishers at the Mississippi Press Association annual conference, Waller made light of the controversy surrounding of a now-shelved $2 million, state-funded road from the gated neighborhood where Reeves lives to easier highway access.
“(The lottery) is not a dependable (revenue) source. There’s not enough money to do anything,” Waller said. “Tate can’t build his driveway with that.”
One reason that Waller is shifting his strategy is that the clock is ticking with just six weeks until the GOP primary. After traveling more in the month of May than his opponents, Waller has spent virtually every day on the road in June.
Though he says he senses momentum across the state, his internal polls still have him trailing Reeves in key regions of the state, he told Mississippi Today.
In the first part of June, Waller’s campaign purchased valuable airtime in television markets across the state with the exception of Jackson, where internal polls have looked promising for his campaign, he said, and Memphis, where ad buys are expensive.
Reeves, for his part, has largely ignored Waller and their other GOP primary opponent Robert Foster, instead focusing his campaign messaging on Attorney General Jim Hood, the frontrunner for the Democrat’s nomination for governor. Meanwhile, Reeves is pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars a week into television airtime.
While Waller has said he doesn’t understand Reeves’ strategy of ignoring the primary opponents, he will continue to adapt his own strategy to what he senses on the trail.
“I wish people all said, ‘I’ve read up on you and I think you’re the best candidate.’ They just don’t,” Waller said. “But a whole lot of them say, ‘I wouldn’t vote for Tate if he was the last person on the moon.’ There are a lot of people who say that.
“I think that in looking at the decision box, they’re looking at me as a good alternative to Tate. I’ll take it anywhere I can get it. It’s out there. It’s amazing. I don’t want to focus on it, and I’m not running on it, but I could have a pretty good book of first-person stories of things that have happened to people.”
At 11 stops in Forrest, Lamar and Covington counties on Tuesday, Waller delivered some old fashioned politicking: He shook hands, joked with people, handed out push cards and asked for support. He walked down Main Street in Collins, going door to door under the hot June sun and visiting with voters.
He toured the DuBard School for Language Disorders at the University of Southern Mississippi, learning from administrators and teachers there about what they do and asking how exactly he could help them if elected governor. He stopped at Southeastern Construction in Hattiesburg, where owner, Patrick Ward, has launched a skills training academy. Waller asked Ward many questions about the academy and about Ward’s experience with workforce training in Mississippi.
He visited the Covington County Hospital in Collins, where he met with the hospital administrator about healthcare finance and the possibility of what Waller calls “Medicaid reform,” which would bring federal dollars to the hospitals through the Affordable Care Act. He swung through the main office of the Covington County School District, where he talked with the district’s superintendent about teacher salary and classroom needs.
An attorney since 1977, Waller rarely wears anything other than a suit. If he’s giving a speech, he’ll wear the jacket. Otherwise, his style is to roll up the sleeves on a white dress shirt with a brightly colored tie, usually red or blue. A chronic note-taker, he always carries a pen and pad in his shirt pocket, which is embroidered with a small blue W.
He rides around the state in a Honda minivan, which is stuffed with Waller yard signs and other campaign paraphernalia. Michael Anderson, a former law clerk for Waller at the Supreme Court and one of few official campaign staffers, is normally the driver.
Waller’s earlier characterization of what he hears on the campaign trail about Reeves manifested itself in the presence of a reporter throughout the 17-hour day, always without prompt.
One woman outside the Covington County courthouse in Collins mentioned that she recognized Waller from a TV ad, and she urged him to put his best foot forward in defeating Reeves.
Harry Mauldin, owner of Main Street Barber Shop in downtown Collins, acknowledged the sentiment.
“I’m leaning toward Bill Waller because I’ve got a lot of friends who come in here and say that they are, too,” Mauldin said. “Tate may be a good man, but it seems like most everyone around here is supporting Waller.”
Several power brokers in the Pine Belt met with Waller on Tuesday and offered similar remarks.
“Tate has been in my home. I helped him on his first campaign,” said Ray “Two Bits” Crawford, a 79-year-old Republican and a political institution in Hattiesburg. “I know him, so I know better than anyone that Bill Waller would make a better governor.”
While Waller may be shifting his strategy, he conceded in the Mississippi Today interview several of Reeves’ strengths and how they are affecting his own campaign’s strategy.
When asked where he was having the most trouble against Reeves, Waller quickly responded, “The Coast,” prompting a long conversation about the machine that Reeves has built in the crucial region of the state.
About 85,000 Republican voters live in the three Gulf Coast counties, using 2016 presidential election turnout. In the 2015 Republican primary for governor, the three Coast counties made up 16 percent of the entire GOP primary turnout, making those counties a battleground for any Republican who wants to become governor.
Reeves has spent years building coalitions and a volunteer infrastructure on the Coast as he prepared for the 2019 gubernatorial election. Reeves’ campaign signs line the roadways on the Coast, to the point that national conservative pundit Erick Erickson tweeted last week: “Driving through South Mississippi, wow the @tatereeves signs are everywhere. Lots of farmers with lots of signs.”
Reeves has also run statewide four times, giving voters on the Coast the benefit of knowing the lieutenant governor’s name. Waller ran for Mississippi Supreme Court in the central district, which does not include the Gulf Coast counties.
Reeves, who has $6.3 million to spend, has built his political machine on the Coast over the past several years. Waller, who has just over $500,000 to spend, has been campaigning for the governor’s seat for just four months.
“You’ve got the old families on the Coast that Tate has very systematically developed relationships with,” Waller said. “He’s a master of trying to secure support from whatever means. He’s got those top, old-line families. That doesn’t mean I don’t have some, but I certainly don’t have his base.”
Waller continued: “But you get below that crust, and the Coast is almost a new place every five years with a lot of people moving in. If I talk to somebody who retired down there or somebody in the military down there, they’ll say, ‘Well, I’ve seen Tate’s name.’ That’s what’s difficult to penetrate because the Waller name doesn’t mean much to them.”
Waller also discussed what he calls a “quiet support” of his candidacy. He said he’s heard from dozens of people across the state who say they feel obligated to publicly support Reeves, but they won’t vote for him.
When asked if that frustrated him, Waller paused before answering.
“My coming into the race was late. Nobody in their right mind would do this in six or seven months,” Waller said. “There’s a lot of people who have said, ‘I’m sorry, I would’ve supported you, but I didn’t know you were coming in the race.’ That’s just something I’ve got to live with.”
Waller continued: “Everybody’s got a different reason for doing whatever they’re going to do, but I would hope that they would vote their conscience and what’s really best for the state.”
Near the end of the 17-hour campaign day, Waller was wired, saying he was encouraged by the number of people who mentioned they had seen his television ads.
The final stop of the day was a Lamar County Republican Party dinner in Sumrall. The event started at 6:30 p.m. — 15 and a half hours after his 3 a.m. wakeup call. On the way to the event, Waller pulled out his iPad and did some research.
“Looks like Lamar County has two roads that are posted,” he said to himself as he scribbled on a notepad. “Also got some bridges posted.”
Inside the Midway Community Center, Waller gave a rousing five-minute speech, seemingly just as energized as he was at the Hardee’s at 5:30 that morning. During the speech, he read off the road and bridge information he had noted in the car on the way, using those numbers as reasoning to seriously address the state’s crumbling infrastructure.
He talked about how the state’s hospitals, including the Collins hospital he’d visited earlier that day, could benefit from “Medicaid reform.” He also talked about his visit earlier in the day with the Covington County School District superintendent and pitched raising public school teacher salaries every year until the state’s average meets the Southeastern average.
After he finished his speech and walked out of the building to load up in the minivan and head home to Jackson, a campaign staffer suggested that was the best speech of his campaign. Waller smiled.
“It felt good,” he said. “It seemed like they responded well to it. But Lord knows, we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
Contributing: Bobby Harrison