Because of a lack of name recognition, the outcome of the race for attorney general, the chief law enforcement agent in the state, will possibly be determined by little more than party affiliation.
“It depends on what happens with voter turnout,” said James Stewart, political science professor at Mississippi College.
Marty Wiseman, political science professor and director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, said it’s been a long time since two people seeking statewide office have had less name recognition.
“I have to believe that when you have two unknowns, party preference comes into play because that’s the second line of identification people go to when they can’t identify heavily with a name,” he said.
Democrat Jim Hood and Republican Scott Newton, the two men vying for the position held by four-term attorney general Mike Moore, who gained national fame by successfully suing Big Tobacco, are relatively unknown by many Mississippians.
“Mike Moore was a consummate politician,” said Wiseman. “He picked two areas that didn’t have big constituencies in Mississippi — tobacco and asbestos. That’s good politics.”
Newton, 38, of Jackson, a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor, and the only candidate with law enforcement experience, is seeking to become the state’s first Republican attorney general. After completing undergraduate studies at Ole Miss, he earned a law degree from the University of Mississippi School of Law.
As an FBI agent, Newton, a certified fraud examiner, investigated corporate scandals, telemarketing fraud and domestic terrorism. According to his Web site, his caseload included a corporate fraud investigation that exposed $520 million in shareholder losses, the Unabomber case and the Montana Freedman Standoff.
As a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Jackson, he successfully prosecuted Fidel Ayala, the leader of an international narcotics trafficking organization, considered one of the nation’s most dangerous drug lords. He also handled major health care fraud and federal tort cases and twice earned the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Integrity Award for prosecutorial excellence.
Hood, 41, of Houston, also earned both undergraduate and law degrees from Ole Miss. Considered hand-picked by Moore as his successor, Hood, who worked for Moore from 1990 to 1995, serves as district attorney for the seven-county Third Circuit Court District in North Mississippi. Mississippians for Crime Victims Rights recently gave him the group’s top award for protecting crime victims’ rights.
If elected attorney general, Newton has pledged to be tougher on white-collar crime and political corruption than Moore and plans to use the office’s violent crimes division to monitor and assist in the prosecution of violent crimes committed throughout the state and to take a lead role in protecting people vulnerable to abuse — the poor, children and the elderly.
Hood’s 10-point plan for fighting crime includes a host of new laws and sentences that requires him to collaborate with legislators to see legislation passed and signed into law. His ideas include eliminating delays in death penalty cases’ mandatory, additional five-year sentences for crimes committed with a gun; maximum jail time for abusers of children and the elderly; making prisoners work to pay for their in-house drug treatment and rehabilitation program; jailing deadbeat parents; maximum jail time for fraudulent charity and telemarketing schemes; and tougher penalties for corporate fraud.
Both camps had been relatively quiet until a month ago, when allegations began swirling in the media about misrepresented information. Newton released data alleging that Hood has a tradition of letting felony DUI offenders off with little more than a warning. When Newton called into question Hood’s record of having tried approximately 100 jury trials, Hood responded by challenging Newton to provide voters a list of all felony criminal cases, including dates, tried before a jury as a lead prosecutor.
When he accused Hood of ignoring Mississippi’s lawsuit abuse problem, Newton caught heat from critics who said the attorney general’s office has nothing to do with civil justice reform or lawsuit abuse.
“Tort reform is something everyone is going to remain concerned about regardless, and we’ve seen that in all the races and from nearly every candidate,” said Stewart. “We’ll also be looking at a federal tort reform movement, and I watch for that in the attorney general’s race. I see issue ads being formulated warning people not to vote for people funded by the trial lawyers, so there’s a backlash there.”
Crime-fighting aside, will the new attorney general continue Moore’s activism campaign?
“The attorney’s general office is the one statewide office that has the power statutorily for a person to really make a name for himself,” said Wiseman. “After an incumbent leaves office, you would think we’d have a lot of folks running, but we didn’t have that, even in the primaries. The job is a lot of hard work, and if you look at what attorneys can make in private practice, they would be taking a big pay cut to do it. We’ve got these two young guys running, and we’ll see what they can do.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.