Gov. Tate Reeves grinned and high-fived a young student as he handed him a new laptop as the news cameras clicked and rolled last week at Bolton-Edwards Elementary/Middle School.
Reeves issued a statement: “This broadband expansion and tremendously generous laptop donation by Comcast are a fantastic boost to the community in Bolton and Edwards. The investment will help provide critical broadband access and support educational opportunities for Mississippi families.” He shared grip-and-grin photos of himself giving out laptops and posing with school officials and posted platitudes on social media.
It was a perfect photo op as Republican Reeves runs for reelection — hopping on a wave of goodwill as Mississippi spends well over $1 billion to run high-speed internet access into the rural hinterlands.
But Reeves for several years has mostly just been along for the ride on broadband internet expansion. And this photo op came as his campaign’s statewide television ads blast “Biden, Bennie and Brandon” — three people arguably most responsible for rural Mississippi’s coming entrée into the internet age — as spendthrifts.
The broadband largess is from President Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan, of which U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson helped Mississippi get $1.2 billion for broadband. Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, Reeves’ Democratic gubernatorial opponent in November, has for years championed broadband expansion in Mississippi long before it was on most others’ radar, and he helped pass transformational state law.
This wasn’t lost on Democratic Rep. Thompson, who was in attendance at the event in his hometown last week but wasn’t included in Reeves’ social media photos.
“For (Reeves) to criticize President Biden in terms of his being out of touch with his approach to addressing problems, then come to the Bolton-Edwards school and praise broadband expansion is at best disingenuous on his part,” Thompson told Mississippi Today. “… This is typical fashion for the governor to show up like he did in Bolton. That’s not leadership when you have not shown any support for the program.
“He’s a politician running for reelection, and I’m sure anywhere more than 10 people are assembled he’ll show up,” Thompson said. “But the record speaks for itself, and he runs ads criticizing politicians who are bringing this money to the state.”
Candidate Presley was likewise critical of Reeves’ efforts to campaign on broadband expansion.
“He was completely missing in action when we were working on broadband,” Presley said.
Presley, after years of work including crisscrossing the state with town hall meetings, successfully lobbied the GOP-majority state Legislature to pass a bill in 2019 to allow electrical cooperatives to supply broadband internet to rural Mississippi and help the state access federal money. He worked closely with Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn, who authored the bill. But Presley said then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who was overseeing the Senate, was not initially on board.
“The fear was it was going to die in the Senate because of Reeves and intense lobbying by the cable industry,” Presley said. He said the first time he went to meet with a top Reeves lieutenant on the broadband expansion bill, a cable lobbyist was there.
“We had to rally the troops and start putting pressure on senators,” Presley said. “… As with everything else when he was lieutenant governor, we were worried that whoever wrote him the last campaign check would be who he sided with.”
As he runs for reelection, Reeves has made other recent comments about how “we’re connecting Mississippians with the technology of the future by expanding broadband” and “attracting the jobs of tomorrow by improving our state’s connectivity today.”
Since he became governor in 2020, Reeves has not blocked any broadband expansion legislation and spending. But he hasn’t shown much support, either.
The Legislature passed four major bills in 2020 to speed up broadband expansion and allocate $315 million in federal funds. Reeves didn’t veto the bills, but let them become law without his signature — typically a protest move by governors to show they don’t support a measure even though they are unwilling to kill it with a veto.
“The appropriation bill for $75 million for co-ops and companies for broadband, he didn’t even sign, in the middle of a pandemic,” Presley said. “He needs to shut his mouth how he’s been for broadband. While mommas and daddies are having to sit outside McDonald’s to get internet service, he’s laid up in the Governor’s Mansion too lazy to even sign a bill … Now he’d have you believe that, like Al Gore, he invented the internet.”
Thompson said: “I wonder what he’ll say when the transportation money starts to kick in from this bill. I guess he’ll be going to the groundbreakings as he’s running commercials against the people who are bringing this money to the state.”