Waller’s unwillingness to cast blame may be second guessed if he comes up short in Tuesday’s runoff

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

GOP candidates Tate Reeves, left, and Bill Waller Jr. share a laugh before the gubernatorial debate at WJTV studios Wednesday, August 21, 2019.

In 2009 in the midst of the so-called Great Recession as Gov. Haley Barbour was making multiple budget reductions to deal with an unprecedented drop in state revenue collections, Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. put his foot down and said no additional cuts could be made to the judiciary.

Waller sent a letter to the Republican governor saying that as a co-equal branch of government the judiciary had to have enough funding to carry out its constitutionally mandated function.

Barbour said OK.

The episode was surprising for two reasons.

First of all, as head of the state’s judiciary, Waller was known as a person who did not rock the boat or cause conflict with the state’s political leadership.

Bobby Harrison

And secondly, as governor, Barbour was known for not backing down – being willing to cause conflict to get his way. Based on the governor’s reaction, it is safe to assume Barbour believed Waller had made a firm argument.

In addition, the fact that Waller was not known as one to rock the boat most likely helped his argument in Barbour’s eyes.

Those amiable traits, though endearing and advantageous for being able to work with others, might be a hindrance in this year’s gubernatorial election. Time will tell. Waller might pull the biggest political upset in recent Mississippi history and win Tuesday’s Republican runoff for governor against Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. But if he doesn’t, it might be a case of a missed opportunity.

Since becoming a late entry into this year’s governor’s election in February, Waller has tried to make the argument that Mississippi is lagging behind surrounding states and the nation and that changes in policies are needed.

That argument has gotten Waller to a Republican primary runoff. Waller already has exceeded the expectations of many by advancing to a runoff against the heavily funded Reeves, who has outspent Waller $6.2 million to $1.4 million, based on the latest campaign finance reports.

While Waller has provided contrasts in terms of policy positions, he has been unwilling to say in a direct manner that Tate Reeves bears a significant share of the responsibility for any problems as one of the state’s primary policy makers as lieutenant governor for the past eight years.

Perhaps, Waller is reluctant to make that argument because if he does he also would be casting blame with popular outgoing Gov. Phil Bryant – another of the state’s key policy maker.

But more likely, to do so just is not in Waller’s DNA. He is in a sense campaigning as “the happy warrior,” talking about what he would do to try to fix problems, but unwilling to cast blame.

Take for instance at last week’s debate – Waller and Reeves were asked about what seems to be the continuing dysfunction at the locations where Mississippians go to acquire and to renew driver’s licenses.

Waller said the legendary long waits are “unacceptable” and that as governor he would take the necessary steps to ensure that no one had to wait longer than 30 minutes.

Reeves chimed in that he agreed with Chief Justice Waller. That was the end of that topic – a topic that perhaps resonated with more voters than any issue that was addressed at the debate.

Waller did not take the opportunity to counter that as lieutenant governor for the past eight years, Reeves did not fix the issues surrounding the driver’s license bureaus and some would argue exacerbated the problem by the inadequate funding awarded to the driver’s license bureaus by the Legislature.

The same could be said about the issue of teacher pay. Waller, as he has in the past, said he would work to provide a pay raise for teachers every year until their salaries reached the Southeastern average.

Ditto, Reeves said. Waller did not ask Reeves why he had not given those raises during his eight years as lieutenant governor.

Teachers have received raises three of those eight years, but those raises still were less monetarily than the pay raises passed during the administration of Ronnie Musgrove in 2000 and concluded during Barbour’s tenure.

Waller faces an uphill battle on Tuesday. Reeves garnered nearly 49 percent of the vote on Aug. 6, barely missing the majority needed to avoid a runoff. Waller received 33 percent of the vote. But runoffs are tricky. Normally fewer people return to the polls so Waller has some reason for optimism and Reeves has at least a little reason to worry.

If Waller comes up just a little short, he might be second guessing himself. But on the other hand, he might be proud of and at peace with the campaign he ran.