Jim Hood’s 14-month frontage road investigation of Tate Reeves stokes already hot governor’s race

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Attorney General Jim Hood face each other in the Nov. 5 general election for governor.

Less than two months from the general election for governor, the state’s attorney general and Democratic nominee for governor released a report that says the state’s lieutenant governor and Republican nominee for governor might have broken state ethics laws.

Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood knew that launching an investigation into whether Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves applied political pressure to construct a state-funded frontage road from his gated neighborhood in Rankin County to easier highway access could pose a political liability.

When Hood launched the investigation in July 2018, neither Hood nor Reeves were officially running for governor — though Hood was then considering but leaning toward a run for governor in 2019, and Reeves was broadly considered a shoo-in for the Republican nomination. 

“At this point, there is no conflict of interest for us to look into this matter,” Hood said in July 2018 when asked about the potential political conflict. “At some point, hopefully we will have an entity available that will take an independent review of this. If they don’t come forward, it may be that I have to do it.”

Shortly after Hood launched the investigation, Reeves and his allies quickly called foul, blasting Hood in statements and press conferences throughout the duration of the investigation. Reeves’ campaign communications director Parker Briden said last month that Hood’s investigation “is so far beyond a conflict of interest — it is abuse of office.”

“If there was a real investigation, and Tate would have welcomed a fair one to clear this up, the Democrat running against him for governor should never have been involved, much less the author of the report,” Briden said.

The report adds fuel to the already contentious gubernatorial battle between Hood, the fourth-term attorney general, and Reeves, the second-term lieutenant governor. The two have long dueled in the halls of state government, publicly bickering over budget cuts, lawsuits and funding of state agencies.

From the beginning of the 2019 governor’s race, the two have attacked each other in television ads and on the stump. Reeves’ first TV ad of the 2019 cycle was an attack of Hood. Hood’s first new TV ad of the general election was an attack of Reeves.

They scourged one another in their Neshoba County Fair speeches this year, with Hood making another comment about the frontage road: “We’re going to build public roads, not private driveways.”

About two hours after the attorney general’s report was released on Wednesday, the Reeves campaign weighed in for the first time.

“After a year of big talk, Jim Hood admits he proved no wrongdoing and can take no action,” Briden said, referring to former MDOT employee Michael Arnemann, in a statement Wednesday evening. “This is just a 43-page political dirty trick by Jim Hood. The only new information is we now know the source of this smear is the lobbyist who’s the number one contributor to Tate Reeves’ opponent.”

Hood, for his part, did not address the Reeves campaign’s accusations of political malfeasance after he released the report.

“My view is that the report speaks for itself,” Hood said in a statement. “It should be read by the press and public, which can make their own judgment as to the actions and conduct of Lt. Governor Reeves.”

The two will debate at least twice between now and Nov. 5 election, with Reeves announcing early Wednesday morning he accepted television invitations to debate on Sept. 25 in Jackson, and Oct. 10 in Hattiesburg. The Hood campaign said it would like to have three debates.