during their first televised gubernatorial debate at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Miss., Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

HATTIESBURG — The years-long political rivalry between Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood and Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves was on full display Thursday night during the gubernatorial nominees’ first debate of the 2019 governor’s race.

About 150 people — mostly elected officials and political insiders — gathered inside the Joe Paul Theater on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi to watch the two lob personal attacks for a statewide television audience.

In anticipation of a 2019 governor’s race bout over the years, Hood has long blistered Reeves for focusing too much on tax incentives for corporations and less on funding for public services, while Reeves has worked hard to label Hood a liberal in the mold of national progressives.

On Thursday night, the two didn’t steer their debate strategies in any other direction on any of the 15 or so questions asked about a range of issues.

“The reason we haven’t (expanded Medicaid) in our state is one of the health care companies gave (Reeves) $262,000 to kill a bill that the Hospital Association got passed in the House and never got a hearing in the Senate because of those kind of campaign contributions,” Hood said of Reeves refusing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. “That’s the kind of things that are happening in our state. They’ve taken over our Legislature, and it’s time for working people to take it back.”

Reeves didn’t skip an opportunity to pair Hood to national Democrats.

“This was an abuse of power by the attorney general, choosing to investigate his political opponent in the middle of a campaign,” Reeves said of the investigation of whether he exerted political pressure to construct a state-funded road to his gated neighborhood. “In fact, he released a report in a time he believes was best to help him in the campaign. Quite frankly, his actions would probably make Hillary Clinton and James Comey blush.”

The candidates weaved policy proposals into their focus on personal attacks.

Hood pitched his plan to increase teacher salaries and fully fund public education, expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act to grant health coverage to up to “300,000 working people,” cut the state’s grocery tax, and sign a law granting women equal pay.

Reeves pitched his plan to increase teacher salaries and increase teacher supply funds and continue working to cut taxes no matter the revenue hits. He spoke broadly of a need to find ways to increase health care access without expanding Medicaid and continue funding infrastructure improvement measures.

Hood, who considers himself a moderate Democrat, worked to appeal to Republican voters, invoking Bill Waller Jr.’s name several times. Waller lost in a Republican primary runoff to Reeves by eight points. Hood also used the term “drain the swamp” several times, an apparent ode to the 2016 campaign phrase made famous by President Donald Trump. 

Reeves touted his endorsement from Trump and talked about the importance of the appointment power of the governor and openly questioned whether Hood would push liberal policy if elected.

Hood said he believes the state flag, the last in the nation containing the Confederate battle emblem, should be changed to one that could “unite the state” but said the Legislature should debate whether or not to make that change. Reeves said the state’s voters should make that decision at the ballot box, and he said that the state’s public universities — all eight of which have removed the state flag from their campuses — should fly the state flag. 

In their closing statements, both candidates focused on wanting a better Mississippi for future generations.

“This election is important for our kids,” Hood said. “We’ve lost more of our kids than any other state in this country. Our kids are leaving because we have a 2 percent growth rate since 2009, and it’s because (Reeves) gave all our money away. It’s time for us to take our government back and keep our kids here so that Mississippi can move forward.”

Reeves focused on his own family in his closing statement.

“Elee and I both grew up in small towns in Mississippi,” Reeves said. “We went to Mississippi public schools. We graduated from Mississippi colleges, and we got Mississippi jobs. I’m running for governor because I want our three little girls, and your kids and grandkids, too, to have that same opportunity.”

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.