FLOWOOD — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley last week told reporters that Republican Gov. Tate Reeves can save his “hot air for somebody else” after Reeves insinuated the Democratic candidate was dodging questions about crime and law enforcement.

The remarks came after Reeves at the Mississippi Press Association’s annual conference on Friday said reporters have not asked Presley questions about a newly passed law that creates a new court system in the capital city of Jackson. 

“I sure think it’s a good thing to have more people working toward public safety in our state capital,” Reeves said to reporters. “But a lot of Democrats in the Capitol opposed it passionately. My opponent is just hoping that you won’t ask him the question.” 

Presley hammered back that Reeves shouldn’t cast doubts about Presley’s history of backing law enforcement officers, given that a suspected criminal killed the Democratic candidate’s uncle, Harold Ray Presley, while he was serving as sheriff of Lee County in north Mississippi. 

“I’ve got the badge he was wearing, I’ve got the gun that was on his hip and the flag that was draped over his coffin,” Brandon Presley said of his uncle. “So I don’t want to hear Tate Reeves open his mouth to me in this campaign about backing law enforcement because he’s never stood where I’ve stood.”

Harold Ray Presley served as Lee County’s sheriff from 1993 to 2001, and his life was cut short when the county officer participated in a manhunt for a suspected kidnapper. The suspect burst out of a building and shot the sheriff multiple times.

The remarks from the two leading candidates for governor were centered on questions about House Bill 1020, which creates a new court district within the majority-Black capital city of Jackson with judges who white officials would appoint.

Conservative legislators and Reeves said the law is meant to curtail crime in Jackson, but Democratic lawmakers, many of whom are Black, believe the legislation strips power away from one of the Blackest cities in the nation. Reeves supported the legislation and signed it into law.

“When you take away the right of people to elect their officials who have traditionally been elected, how else are they going to see it?” longtime Democratic Rep. Ed Blackmon of Canton said earlier this year. 

Presley said he was against the intent of House Bill 1020 because it usurps the authority of local officials and prevents Hinds County voters from electing their own judges like nearly all other types of judges throughout the state.  

“I was a small-town mayor,” Presley said on Friday. “I wouldn’t want the state Legislature coming to tell me how to run my police department. Simple. I do not agree with unelected judges.” 

READ MORE: Mississippi’s racial divides were on full display as HB 1020 got its final debate and passing vote

Federal courts have blocked the law from going into effect pending litigation. U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate issued an order last month barring state officials from appointing temporary judges in the new court district, and attorneys for the NAACP have filed a motion asking the judge for an injunction to block the entire law from going into effect on July 1. Attorneys for the state oppose the request.

But the legislation has still sparked questions during the campaign cycle about crime, race and voting rights. 

Presley, the current utility regulator in north Mississippi, told reporters that if he were elected governor, he would work to find a solution that legislative leaders and local officials can agree on instead of dragging litigation out in court. 

“As governor, I want the ego to go out the window,” Presley said. “Out the window because the future of the city of Jackson is important to the citizens in all other 81 counties in this state. Call me naive if you want to; I still believe an attempt at personal relationships in politics matters.”

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Taylor, a native of Grenada, covers state government and statewide elections. He is a graduate of the University of Mississippi and Holmes Community College. Before joining Mississippi Today, Taylor reported on state and local government for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, where he received an award for his coverage of the federal government’s lawsuit against the state’s mental health system.