JACKSON — Republicans are trying to capture the only statewide office they don't currently hold in Mississippi as the fourth-term Democratic attorney general, Jim Hood, runs for governor.
Three lawyers are competing for the Republican nomination: Mark Baker of Brandon, Lynn Fitch of Ridgeland, and Andy Taggart of Madison.
Party primaries are Aug. 6, and if runoffs are needed, they will be Aug. 27.
The winner of the Republican nomination for attorney general will face Democrat Jennifer Riley Collins , a lawyer from Clinton, in the Nov. 5 general election. Riley Collins is retired U.S. Army colonel and current executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi.
Baker, who's a fourth-term state representative, and Taggart, who's in private practice and was a chief of staff for Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice in the 1990s, spoke Wednesday in Hattiesburg at a forum sponsored by the conservative Federalist Society and William Carey University. The moderator said all four candidates were invited, and Riley Collins declined. He said Fitch accepted but later chose not to participate.
A campaign spokeswoman said Fitch, the second-term state treasurer, has a packed schedule and but can't attend every event.
In response to a question at the forum Wednesday, Baker said he would cancel the practice of the attorney general's office giving "no-bid, no-lose contingency contracts" to outside lawyers.
"I think they are absolutely contrary to the public interest," Baker said.
Republicans have long criticized Hood and his predecessor, Democrat Mike Moore, for hiring private attorneys to handle lawsuits on behalf of the state. Under Moore, Mississippi used private attorneys to sue tobacco companies to recover public costs of treating sick smokers. Hood has used private attorneys in a longstanding lawsuit that seeks to make Entergy repay up to $2 billion to customers.
Baker has been chairman of the House Judiciary A Committee the past eight years and has pushed to regulate the attorney general's ability to hire private attorneys. He said the state's lawsuits against private businesses have hurt Mississippi's ability to attract jobs, and contingency contracts have allowed private attorneys to buy "bigger mansions and faster jets" with money that should, instead, have gone toward schools and roads.
Taggart said Wednesday that the attorney general's office should have a default position that most litigation will be handled by attorneys on staff. He said if an analysis shows a lawsuit is too complex or too broad in scope for the staff to handle, "only then, in my estimation, should the attorney general consider retention of outside counsel."
"And, in that event, it should be by some sort of professional review process," Taggart said.
In an interview Friday, Fitch told The Associated Press that using in-house lawyers from the attorney general's office "is the most efficient and normally the most cost-effective way" to handle litigation.
"But, like any law firm, if there's a case that requires specialized knowledge ... I certainly wouldn't foreclose that option," Fitch said of hiring private attorneys to work for the state.
Fitch started her law career as a special assistant attorney general. She said that in deciding whether to hire private attorneys, she would have the same starting point as on other decisions in the state's top legal office: "The first and the last question the attorney general should ask — 'What is in the people's best interest?'"
So far, Riley Collins has raised less money than the Republicans in the attorney general's race. But they have bigger campaign expenses the next several weeks, while she has the relative luxury of an uncontested primary. An attempt to reach her Friday was not immediately successful.
Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter @EWagsterPettus.