OCEAN SPRINGS — Just a few hours before a congressional candidate’s forum was slated to begin on Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo’s staff called event organizers and said he couldn’t make it because he had “meetings dealing with national security.”
But as all six of Palazzo’s Republican challengers were still on stage sharing their ideas with the public on Tuesday evening, the incumbent posted a Facebook photo of himself with his son at a restaurant in Starkville. It is unclear if national security was among the topics Palazzo discussed with his college-aged son over dinner Tuesday evening.
Palazzo, the 10-year incumbent congressman representing Mississippi’s 4th District, will be on the June 7 primary ballot for the Republican nomination to Congress. Six GOP challengers — including several well-known Gulf Coast figures — have lined up to unseat him, in large part because of an ongoing House Ethics Committee investigation into allegations that Palazzo illegally misspent hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds for personal use.
Palazzo appears to be testing the limits of incumbency — and lack of voter engagement in a sleepy election cycle — as a means to get reelected. One month from Election Day, it’s difficult to see signs he’s actually running.
Palazzo has skipped both candidate forums this cycle, and his opponents and attendees alike are taking advantage of it. Multiple candidates sharply critiqued his absence on stage Tuesday evening, and members of the audience jeered when it was announced he would not be attending.
The congressman notoriously holds few public events since he was first elected to Congress in 2010. During his first term in Congress, some constituents in south Mississippi began referring to him as “No-Show Palazzo.” That nickname has been regularly tossed around by his opponents on the campaign trail this year.
The congressman hasn’t always shown his face in Washington in recent months, either. He was one of several congressional Republicans to file a 2020 lawsuit against Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to stop proxy voting — the process by which members have other congressmen cast votes for them when they are absent.
“By signing on to this lawsuit, I am committing to refrain from lending my vote via proxy or placing a vote via proxy on behalf of another member,” Palazzo said in a 2020 press release. “When South Mississippians sent me to Washington, they placed their confidence and trust in me, not a proxy vote.”
But since he issued that press release, Palazzo has voted by proxy at least 66 times, according to the conservative public policy organization Ripon Society. By comparison, neither of Mississippi’s other two Republican congressmen, Reps. Trent Kelly and Michael Guest, has voted by proxy once in the same timeframe.
Jackson County Sheriff Mike Ezell and Hancock County businessman Clay Wagner, two of Palazzo’s GOP primary challengers, have raised more money in 2022 than Palazzo. Ezell and Wagner have started running television ads in the Biloxi and Hattiesburg television markets, while Palazzo is not yet on air.
Ezell, Wagner, and the other GOP primary candidates state Sen. Brice Wiggins, Kidron Peterson, Raymond Brooks and Carl Boyanton have attended both candidate forums.
“Congressman Palazzo is not only campaigning but is also busy doing the job he was elected to do,” said Justin Brassell, Palazzo’s campaign manager. “He was in Tupelo (on Tuesday) at General Atomics and stopped in Starkville on the way home. He was making other official visits around the district (on Wednesday).”
Brassell continued: “He’s happy to campaign on his conservative voting record and work on the Appropriations Committee that helps maintain Mississippi’s key role in homeland security and our national defense. When Republicans win a majority this fall, he will be in a key senior leadership position on Appropriations to continue that important work for our state.”
But the reelection his campaign manager predicts is very much in question thanks in large part to a months-long investigation into Palazzo’s questionable campaign spending.
Mississippi Today previously reported that Palazzo used campaign funds to pay himself and his former spouse nearly $200,000 through companies they own — including thousands to cover the mortgage, maintenance and upgrades to a riverfront home Palazzo owned and wanted to sell. A Mississippi Today report also questioned thousands in Palazzo campaign spending on swanky restaurants, sporting events, resort hotels, golfing and gifts.
A congressional ethics report made public in March 2021 claimed that Palazzo misspent campaign and congressional funds, and says it found evidence he used his office to help his brother and used staff for personal errands and services.
The report says it found “substantial” evidence that Palazzo used his position and office to help his brother, Kyle Palazzo. The actions in question included Rep. Palazzo potentially using his official office and resources to contact the assistant secretary of the Navy to help his brother’s efforts to re-enlist, and paying his brother nearly $24,000 over 10 months as a “political coordinator.”
The report also said the Office of Congressional Ethics found evidence that Palazzo used congressional staffers for personal errands, such as two staffers spending an entire workday looking for iron-on clothing labels for Palazzo’s children’s clothes before they departed for summer camp.
The House Ethics Committee investigation of Palazzo is ongoing. The committee could dismiss the allegations, offer its own rebuke of Palazzo, or pass the matter off for criminal investigation to the U.S. Department of Justice.