The election to fill the First District Congressional seat is only a couple of weeks away, and it’s hard to discern a clear leader in the race. The non-partisan race to fill the seat vacated by Congressman Alan Nunnelee’s February 6th death has drawn 13 candidates.
Although candidates will not be listed on the ballot by party affiliation, 12 of the 13 identify themselves as Republicans and only one, Pontotoc lawyer Howard Zinn, is a Democrat. Nearly everyone assumes Zinn has no chance of winning in the strongly Republican First District, but he does stand out in that he, at least, sounds different from the others on some of the issues.
The 12 Republicans in the race are distinguished by their lack of distinction on the issues. All of the Republicans want to stop deficit spending and reduce the public debt; they want to repeal Obamacare and give strong support to the military; all are against abortion and for family values; and all voice a low opinion of Obama. The “debate” Monday night, April 20, at the Link Center in Tupelo amounted to all of the Republicans saying, “me too, me too, me too,” and Zinn alone saying “not me, not me.”
Unless something changes in the next few days, it seems most likely that the election will not be decided by differences over ideology and policy. No candidate has yet emerged as a clear front-runner, and no one has stumbled so badly that he can be ruled out.
A private poll commissioned before the filing deadline is said to have shown that Northern District Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert would likely get 17% of the vote, but that same poll showed that Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, a Democrat, would get 37%. Presley said he didn’t want to be a congressman, and is running for re-election to his seat on the PSC.
Most would still see Tagert as the front-runner. He is well known, having twice been elected transportation commissioner. He first won a special election after Commissioner Bill Minor died late in 2010, and was elected to a full four year term in 2011. Tagert has been successful in raising money for the congressional race. Federal Election Commission (FEC) reports earlier this month said he had raised $247,000 for the race, $243,000 from contributions and none of it from borrowed money. Tagert is also running for re-election to his transportation commission job. Tagert is 44 years old.
Tupelo attorney Greg Pirkle had raised a little more money than Tagert, $256,000, although $100,000 of Pirkle’s total was from borrowed money. Pirkle has characterized himself as an “outsider,” and emphasizes that he is “not a politician.” Although he has not previously run for office, Pirkle is an insider in professional and business circles. He is the managing partner of the Tupelo office of Phelps Dunbar, a large law firm with, according to its website, 260 lawyers in 11 cities, including Dallas/Fort Worth, London (UK), Houston (TX), Tampa, New Orleans, Raleigh (NC), Mobile, Jackson, Baton Rouge and Gulfport. Phelps Dunbar says it focuses its practice on representing several categories of businesses, including financial services, maritime, construction, gaming, health care, and railroads.
Pirkle grew up in Union County and graduated from New Albany High School. He graduated from Baylor University, the Ole Miss law school, and earned a master’s degree in taxation from New York University. He has served on a number of boards, including that of the CREATE Foundation of Tupelo. He currently serves on the board of BNA Bank and has many friends in Union County. He could be expected to do very well in Union County and in Lee County where he is prominent. Pirkle is 53 years of age.
There are at least three other candidates who should run well in Lee and adjacent counties:
District Attorney Trent Kelly represents seven of the 21 counties in the First Congressional district. Running as a Republican, Kelly carried five of those seven counties in the 2011 general election and defeated eight-term (32 years) District Attorney John R. Young, a Democrat. Kelly is a U.S. Army Colonel who served two tours as commander of Mississippi National Guard troops in Iraq. Besides his undergraduate and law degrees from Ole Miss, Kelly earned a master’s degree from the U. S. Army War College. On the last FEC reports Kelly reported having raised $95,000 in campaign contributions. He received contributions totalling $9,400 from Tori Nunnelee, the widow of the late congressman. Two former Nunnelee staffers are working for Kelly, who is also running for re-election as District Attorney. He is 49 years old.
State Senator Nancy Collins of Tupelo can be expected to draw significant votes in Lee County, which she has served as the state senator for District 6 since 2011. She is a nurse and speech therapist and was a founder of Sanctuary Hospice House. Collins reports having raised $14,000 in campaign money. She is 67 years old, and is also running for re-election to her state senate seat.
Ed Holliday, a 53-year-old Tupelo dentist, is likely to have a substantial following in Lee County and beyond. Affable and humorous, Holliday is something of a locally prominent political pundit, who has written books and articles and appeared on radio and television programs advocating his “strong conservative values.” Although his positions on most issues are about the same as the other Republicans, he does go a step further than the others with his promise to “abolish the IRS” and establish “a consumption-based tax system that keeps the burden off the poor, is fair to the middle class and is just for all Americans.” Holliday has built a respectable war chest of $116,000, $100,000 from a loan and $16,000 from contributions.
Most of the candidates have agreed to be at the Congressional Town Hall meeting in New Albany on the evening of May 5th for a debate.
Part Two of this analysis, to be posted tomorrow, April 27th, discusses the unusual and interesting geographic distribution of candidates and registered voters in this race and provides information about other candidates who will be on the May 12th ballot.