Courtesy Mandy Gunasekara

The election qualification of Mandy Gunasekara, who filed to run for public service commissioner in the northern district of Mississippi, is being challenged before the Republican Party.

A letter sent to Republican Party Chairman Frank Bordeaux by Hernando attorney Matthew Barton, who is a Republican candidate this year for district attorney in DeSoto County, says that Gunasekara has not met the legal requirement of being a citizen of Mississippi for “five years preceding the day of election.”

The letter reads, “Mrs. Gunasekara fails to qualify and should be removed because she does not meet the requirements.”

Gunasekara, former chief of staff of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Trump administration, is vying for the open PSC seat in the Republican primary against state Rep. Chris Brown of Nettleton and Tanner Newman, a former staffer of U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and now an administrator in the Tupelo city government.

Incumbent PSC Commissioner Brandon Presley is running as a Democrat for governor this election cycle. No Democrat or third party candidate has qualified for the open seat, meaning the winner of the August Republican primary will hold the seat.

The executive committee of the state Republican Party has the authority to rule on election challenges, such as residency requirements.

In a statement to Mississippi Today, Gunasekara, who now lives in Oxford, said she is qualified to vie for the PSC post.

“My heart, my home, and my family have always been in Mississippi,” she said. “My time fighting for conservative values with President Trump is why I’m the most qualified candidate and the subject of these attacks. I conferred with Mississippi election law experts, and I meet the requirements for PSC.”

In the letter to the state Republican Party, Barton documented where Gunasekara voted in the District of Columbia in 2018. She qualified to vote in Mississippi in January 2019.

She also owned a home in the District of Columbia and received a homestead exemption on her 2021 property taxes, the letter and public documents provided show.

The letter said the Office of Tax Revenue explains, “To qualify for the homestead deduction, you must be domiciled the District of Columbia and the property for which you are applying must be your principal residence.”

In addition, the letter points out that a mortgage document from 2020 said that Gunasekara “shall continue to occupy the property as borrower’s principal residence for at least one year after the occupancy.”

The letter to the state Republican Party is dated Feb. 9. The state parties have a June 9 deadline to submit to the Secretary of State’s office a list of qualified candidates for the August primary elections.

Spencer Ritchie, Gunasekara’s lawyer, said, “Under clearly established Mississippi law, citizenship and residency are not synonymous. To the extent Mandy ever lost her Mississippi citizenship during her time working in D.C., which is debatable, she certainly regained it once she took several concrete steps in 2018 to abandon D.C. and once again make Mississippi her permanent home … The Mississippi Republican Party State Executive Committee is very familiar with these fundamental concepts in Mississippi election law, and we are confident in how they will resolve the matter.”

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.