“Shouldn’t you like your candidate for governor? Now you can.” —Bill Waller, Jr. campaign ad.
BILOXI —Think of it as “Meet the Press,” Mississippi edition.
In conjunction with the Mississippi Press Association’s annual summer convention, a candidate forum was held here last Friday, one at which I had what turned into the distinct pleasure of introducing William L. “Bill” Waller, Jr. before his address to and question-and-answer session with my fellow newspaper folk.
Waller is waging what most observers believe to be an uphill campaign to snatch the Republican gubernatorial nomination from the greedy little paws of current lieutenant governor and campaign money magnet Tate Reeves, one in which Waller is seen to have a single, not wholly insignificant advantage over his favored opponent: People seem to like him.
And that now includes me.
At a very basic personal level, Waller just comes across as a generally nice and friendly man, something that hordes of Mississippians are not exactly breathlessly racing to line up and say about Reeves — including a veritable who’s who of the Republican establishment in this state.
Back in April, four former chairmen of the Missississippi GOP (Clarke Reed, Billy Mounger, Mike Retzer and Billy Powell, heavy hitters, all) came out in public support of Waller over (“it’s my turn”) Reeves for what Mounger said was the very sound reason of, “I think he’s more electable than Tate.”
Reed cited Reeves’ reluctance to even consider any sort of tax hike to address a clearly crumbling infrastructure, while Powell was even more pointed in comments to Mississippi Today: “What bothers me about Tate is his arrogance. He doesn’t have the tendency to really want to work with people. It’s more of a ‘my way or the highway’-type position. His arrogance really turns me off.”
As another longtime Republican political figure said to me earlier this year, “Tate’s just an ass. Always has been.”
Waller, on the other hand, in word and in person, is starting to appear more and more like the sort of fellow that Mississippians have tended — at least until lately — to choose as their occupant of the Governor’s Mansion — soft-spoken, dignified, gentlemanly. Did I mention that he sent me a hand-written thank-you note for my introduction?
And, in what might be as well received as a cool breeze by at least some of the state’s residents about now, neither is he as dumb as a bag of ball bearings.
The son of a former governor, Waller graduated Murrah High School in Jackson and can comfortably sit on either side of the field during the Egg Bowl, as he received his undergrad degree at Mississippi State and his law degree from Ole Miss. (If you think that is actually not important in this state, then you have not lived in it long enough.)
For the past 21 years, Waller has been a justice of the state Supreme Court, the last 10 of which he served as chief justice, the highest judicial branch office in the state. Before seeking elective office, he practiced privately with the Waller and Waller firm in Jackson.
Waller can also boast (though boastfulness hardly seems consistent with what is at least his displayed demeanor) of 30 years of commissioned military service with the Miss. Army National Guard and the U.S. Army Reserve, attaining the rank of brigadier general while commanding the 66th Troop Command.
Waller was but one of the “big three” gubernatorial candidates (with Reeves and Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood) to speak to the press association’s assembled journalists, along with less likely nominees Republican Robert Foster and Democrat Robert Schuler Smith, and with all perhaps knowing their audience, there was no great rhetorical excess of positive or negative nature produced by the forum. Waller and Hood appeared the most relaxed in their brief presentations, while Reeves, who has never been much of a fan of the printed word, said and did little to make any of us who print them think he’s had a change of heart.
Reeves still is the odds-on favor to win the GOP nod, having as he does the backing of sitting Gov. Phil Bryant and a huge campaign cash-on-hand advantage against any and all would be opponents. That’s usually enough to translate into a victory and lots of “Reeves” signs were visible last week in Gulf Coast yards, but as word of caution, it seems to me that this year’s gubernatorial race shares something in common with next year’s presidential one — something that makes what the should-be shoo-in candidates in both just feel like anything but that.
And it is something as old as interpersonal relations, themselves — when folks act like jerks, other folks just don’t like them.
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.