Wednesday, October 7, 2015
In February, Mike Hurst, then an assistant U.S. attorney, stepped out of the federal courthouse in Jackson to speak to reporters about an indictment in the biggest public corruption case to rock Mississippi in years.
Flanked by several fellow federal and state officials, Hurst talked to reporters about how an investigation showed that Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps orchestrated a bribery and kickback scheme with the help of Rankin County businessman Cecil McCrory that paved the way for billions in prison contracts.
John Grisham himself couldn't have scripted a more compelling storyline. Hurst, a tall, square-jawed, not-yet-40 federal prosecutor brought down two men—one black and one white, no less—who together had bilked the taxpayers of the nation's poorest and, arguably, most corrupt state. Days later, Hurst quit his job with the feds to run as a Republican for attorney general, the top law-enforcement post in the state. But Hurst's sights were not set on just his incumbent challenger, Jim Hood, a Democrat; he was also taking the fight to his former bosses in the Barack Obama administration.
"From Obamacare to the backdoor ammunition bans; from amnesty to job-killing regulations from the EPA: we need Mike Hurst to stand up and fight against federal overreach that threatens our individual rights, Mississippi's policies, our economic security and jobs," Hurst's campaign website states.
Of course, taking shots at Barack Obama is the currency of Mississippi conservative politics. The real prize is knocking off Hood, one of the last Democrats holding statewide office in the Deep South.
Hood, a centrist from northeast Mississippi, has been a nagging source of pain for the state's Republican establishment. He has incensed Republicans by declining to use the office to fight Obama on the Affordable Care Act and immigration enforcement. In some ways, Hood, 53, keeps the beleaguered Mississippi Democratic Party alive by keeping cash circulating among Democratic-affiliated law firms, most notably that of his predecessor, former AG Mike Moore.
Although he has drawn the GOP's ire, Hood's tough-on-crime populism appeals to many Democratic voters, including African Americans, and just enough Republicans to have helped him make easy work of a succession of uninspiring GOP hopefuls in the last three cycles, each of whom Hood whipped by 20 points.
The closest thing to a debate in the current race came on Sept. 14 when both men appeared at the Stennis Institute's capital press luncheon in downtown Jackson. Hood was folksy as always, talking about following Christ's example of fighting for widows, orphans and the elderly in "going after cybercrime, cyberbullying, perverts, educating parents, protecting vulnerable adults." Hurst hammered Hood for being too lax on corrupt public officials and touted his own record of prosecuting corruption as an assistant U.S. attorney.
Jere Nash, a veteran Democratic political observer who recently co-authored a book on Hurricane Katrina with Gov. Barbour, said Hurst has the right law-enforcement credentials to go up against Hood, who has fended off Republican challenges for 12 years.
"The Republicans have thrown different candidates against Jim Hood in previous elections. The problem is that Jim Hood and his campaign team are very good at exploiting weaknesses of candidates," Nash said. "At least on the surface, these candidates all appeared to have good credentials, but they all had major weaknesses when you scratch the surface. Time will tell if the same is true for the current opponent."
Hurst: A Rising Star
Relatively unknown outside political-insider circles, Hurst, 39, has the pedigree to climb as high as his party lets him.
He was born in the town of Hickory, in Newton County, where his father, also named Mike, owned a trucking company and his mother, Lucy, worked for the Mississippi Department of Transportation. The junior Hurst met his wife, Celeste, during Bible camp in middle school. It wasn't exactly a case of love at first sight for Celeste, Hurst said.
"Oh man," he said, trying to remember how many he asked Celeste out before she finally said yes. "I just wore her down, from seventh and eighth grade to twelfth grade (when) she finally went on a date with me."
They both attended East Central Community College in Decatur. Hurst then got his bachelor's degree at Millsaps College (Celeste attended Belhaven University), and he went to law school at the University of Mississippi. After his first year, the couple got married and moved to Washington, D.C., for summer internships, Hurst with the FBI and Celeste with the office of then-U.S. Sen. Trent Lott. When Celeste got a full-time job with Lott's office, Hurst finished up his law degree at George Washington University Law School.
A stint at the D.C. offices of Atlanta-based law firm Troutman Sanders led Hurst to work for the House Judiciary Committee under Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and then U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering of Mississippi, also a Republican. As Pickering's legislative director and counsel until 2007, Hurst helped draft the Local Community Recovery Act of 2006 after Hurricane Katrina and helped write the Housing Opportunities and Mitigating Emergencies Act of 2005, which served as the model for Mississippi's post-Katrina housing initiative implemented through community development block grants.
Hurst jokes that he moved the family back to Mississippi because his oldest daughter, Anna Reagan, was starting to make fun of her parents' accents, so he knew it was time to go home, where he accepted a job at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Jackson under Dunn Lampton.
Under Lampton, who died in 2011, Hurst prosecuted a litany of white-collar cases, from a former director of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers indicted for embezzlement to a strip-club owner who lied on his federal tax returns to public-corruption cases. In 2013, Vicksburg Mayor Paul Winfield pleaded guilty to bribery charges. Hurst also indicted the mayor of Walnut Grove, Grady Smith, for a number of charges, including witness tampering.
"First off, folks lose their faith in government when they see corrupt public officials, people who we've given our trust—whether it's our vote of them running our government—acting simply on behalf of themselves without regard to what's in the best interest in the public. I think it completely deflates our confidence in our form of government," Hurst said during a recent interview at his campaign headquarters in Jackson.
In a case like Epps and McCrory that involved hundreds of millions worth of contracts, in exchange for kickbacks and bribes Hurst said taxpayers aren't getting the maximum return on their money. Since announcing his candidacy for the state AG's office, Hurst has made fighting public corruption the centerpiece of his campaign as well as attacks against Hood, whom Hurst accuses of not being aggressive enough on the issue.
"This type of crime affects us in more ways than most crimes because it's not only affecting us in our pocketbook; it's also affecting our faith in government," Hurst said.
Hood: A Populist Country Boy
Jim Hood has two responses to Hurst's focus on public corruption. First, Hood estimates that he has prosecuted triple the number of public-corruption cases Hurst has. And, secondly, that corruption is just a small part of what he oversees as attorney general.
In short, Hood is running for re-election on the strength of 12 years of incumbency, nearly four decades of legal experience and his deep north Mississippi roots.
He grew up in Chickasaw County, where his father was a local prosecutor. The younger Hood was put off enough by enmity that came with his father's occupation that he initially had interest in neither law nor politics.
"We had a lot of threats. We had to leave home several times. Our home burned in 1973, and the local crooks took credit for it. We had to leave home a lot of nights and ended up living in a trailer outside our house for a year or two," Hood told the Jackson Free Press in 2011.
The death of a close family member changed his mind and helped chart Hood's course for the next 40 years.
In 1977, Hood's cousin and hunting buddy, Glenn Ford, was murdered outside a restaurant in Leake County. Hood sat in on the trial, which resulted in the defendant being convicted for manslaughter and sentenced to seven years in prison.
At the time, Hood felt that his cousin's character was on trial as much as the person charged with his murder. "It made me realize that it wasn't fair for a victim who got murdered to go on trial. It wasn't fair for a victim to be raked over the coals, and they are dead and can't defend themselves. When I got to be DA, I always kept victims at the front. We never made any recommendations on cases without first running it by victims and the law-enforcement officers," Hood said.
Advocating for victims of crime—and, later, of corporate malfeasance—proved a winning populist message in Hood's political life, which began under former Attorney General Mike Moore for whom he served as special assistant attorney for five years. In 1995, voters elected Hood as district attorney for the Third Circuit Court District in north Mississippi, where he served two terms. In 2003, when Moore stepped down, Hood ran to replace his mentor.
In the past 12 years, Hood has kept up his persona as the No. 1 prosecutor, establishing units to combat cyber-crime and identity theft and crimes against vulnerable adults.
The attorney general is especially proud of the domestic-violence unit. As one bit of evidence of success for the division, this year Mississippi dropped to 34th among states for domestic violence-related homicides, down from No. 5 one year earlier.
Hood credits nonprofits like the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which recently presented Hood an award for his office's work to improve domestic-abuse laws and victim assistance, as well as the Legislature for improving awareness in Mississippi.
"They taught me more than I ever knew about domestic violence," Hood said in an Oct. 2 interview with the JFP, adding that he plans to apply for a federal grant to continue anti-DV work. "Overall, it's learned behavior. It's not like you have a gene that says you're going to beat your wife."
Domestic homicide came to the forefront in the state in 2008 and again in 2011 with then-Gov. Barbour's pardons of more than 200 people, including six men convicted of killing women.
In 2011, Hood moved to block many of the pardons, arguing that the former prisoners failed to follow the letter of the law before their release from confinement.
"We give the governor the power of a king," Hood told reporters at the time, adding that the governor "abused his office" and violated victims' rights. Ultimately, the Mississippi Supreme Court sided with Barbour, and the pardons stood.
That would not be the last time Hood chose the side of tough justice in the name of victim's rights. He raised eyebrows again in March 2014, when his office requested execution dates—for Charles Ray Crawford and Michelle Byrom—for March 26 and March 27, respectively. Crawford was convicted of the 1993 killing of a college student named Kristy Ray in Tippah County.
Byrom, a domestic-violence victim, was convicted of murder-for-hire in 1999 in connection with the death of her husband, Edward Byrom Sr. Even though questions loomed over the guilt of Byrom, whose son wrote several letters confessing to the crime and saying that his mother did not participate in it, Hood moved ahead with planning her execution.
When the Mississippi Supreme Court issued Byrom a last-minute stay and, ultimately, a new trial, Hood seemed livid and demanded an explanation from the high court, writing in a brief: "The State would assert that the Court has embarked on an unprecedented course of action that leaves everyone questioning why. ...This is not the manner in which cases are reversed. Without any guidance from this Court, the State is doomed to repeat the presumed errors upon which this conviction was reversed.
"With all due respect, the State would respectfully submit that the Court should stay the proceedings in this case until such time that a reasoned written opinion issues from the Court stating the basis for the reversal of this death penalty conviction that has survived all previous challenges in this Court and the Federal courts."
At the time, Hood declined interview requests to explain why he appeared so gung-ho about moving forward with putting Byrom to death. Recently, Hood did talk about the case and about the death penalty.
"That's my duty," he told the JFP. "People can disagree about the death penalty—my wife doesn't believe in it—but I took an oath to enforce the law. I think people may perceive somehow that I'm just so supportive of the death penalty, but I'm just doing my job."
Comparing the Candidates
On some issues, there is little distance between Hood and Hurst's positions. Hurst also supports the death penalty even amid the national debate over the drugs used in lethal injection cocktails; Mississippi has been the target of several lawsuits from condemned prisoners who want the Department of Corrections to disclose the source of its drugs.
"If we don't have the drugs, we need to get the drugs. If juries have determined that is the punishment of certain individuals, then it's our job to carry out that punishment," Hurst said.
On abortion, Hood said in 2011 of his endorsement of a ballot initiative to redefine when life begins that "from a personal standpoint, I have always honored the sanctity of life at every stage. As attorney general, I have defended every pro-life bill that has been adopted by the Mississippi Legislature. I have assisted our lawmakers with pro-life legislation and will continue to do so."
Since then, Hood has remained true to his word. In 2012, the Legislature passed a law that requires doctors at freestanding abortion clinics to have OB-GYN board certification and admitting privileges at a local hospital. The law threatens to shutter the Jackson Women's Health Organization, the only abortion clinic in the state, and became the subject of an inevitable lawsuit, which Hood's office has defended on the state's behalf to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could take up the case this fall.
Hurst agrees with Hood's defense of the suit, but believes Hood has not defended the law aggressively enough and has eschewed legal advice from experts in the pro-life community. Hurst also wants to launch an inquiry into Planned Parenthood after a pro-life group released a video in July of what abortion opponents characterize as selling body parts of aborted fetuses
Lauren Carroll, writing for PolitiFact, a political fact-checking site: "It's clear in the full-length video," that Dr. Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood's senior director of medical services, "believes she is speaking with representatives from a company that provides scientific researchers with tissue from aborted fetuses (a legal process that raises difficult ethical questions). She describes the process of getting consent from patients, as well as how Planned Parenthood clinics typically interacts with the companies that take the tissue from the clinics to the researchers."
Still, Hurst said he wants an investigation of Planned Parenthood's Mississippi operations, even though the only location in the state, in Hattiesburg, does not perform abortions. For him, it's about protecting Mississippi's Christian values, which extends to the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.
"Churches, religious organizations have a First Amendment right, too. This is their faith, this is their belief, according to the Bible. If they disagree with others who believe gay marriage is right, they shouldn't be penalized in terms in their tax-exempt status," Hurst said.
After the 2015 SCOTUS decision nullified same-sex marriage bans everywhere, including Mississippi, Hood has continued to defend Mississippi in a lawsuit over the state's ban on same-sex adoption, calling it a "procedural issue."
The Campaign for Southern Equality recently sued the Mississippi Department of Human Services to challenge the constitutionality of the ban, the last law in the nation that still absolutely bans same-sex couples from adopting regardless of the couples' qualifications. In a motion filed Sept. 11, Hood stated that Mississippi is not required to allow same-sex couples to adopt, maintaining that the state should continue to encourage adoption by opposite-sex couples.
In an interview with the Jackson Free Press in September, Hood said the plaintiffs should have gone through a chancery court and initiated an adoption proceeding. He added that it is his responsibility to defend the state in the case.
"That's who applies that law, not the attorney general, not the Department of Human Services," Hood said in September, referring to chancery court. "There's a difference between gay marriage and gay adoption, and they need to be in the proper forum, in state court."
Rob Hill, state director of the Human Rights Campaign Mississippi, criticized Hood's office in a statement, accusing the attorney general and Gov. Phil Bryant of "continuing to keep the Magnolia State tethered to a discriminatory past."
Contrasting the Candidates
After Obama took office, Hurst said his office prosecuted exceedingly fewer immigration cases even though Obama has deported record numbers of immigrants. Citing reports of the alleged costs Mississippi taxpayers incur for undocumented immigrants, Hurst said as attorney general he would fight back against the immigration policies of the Obama administration.
In 2013, Gov. Phil Bryant hired controversial attorney and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to represent the state in a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security; Hurst says he would have represented Mississippi in that case.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states may not set foreign policy, which falls under the purview of the president, but Hurst says immigration is a state issue.
"It's a federal issue to the extent that it's immigration, but it's a state issue to the extent that we're the ones that have to shoulder the burden of that illegal immigration," said Hurst, who ordered immigration raids of the Country Club of Jackson in 2006 and Howard Industries in Laurel in 2008.
"Congress has passed a law saying you can come into this country certain ways, and if you don't come in this country certain ways, we have criminal laws that allow you to be prosecuted and deported. The president said we're not going to enforce those criminal laws—that's not foreign policy, that's domestic policy," Hurst said.
Hood may have been willing to sit on the sidelines in the Obama lawsuit, but his office has helped with other immigration cases. For example, a raid took place this summer at American Dairyco in Raymond, when an I-9 audit opened the door to a Mississippi AG's Consumer Protection Division probe.
"This case is a great example of the significance of our federal partnerships," Hood said in a press release about the arrests of nine Hispanic workers. "We appreciate our great working relationship with Homeland Security Investigations."
Cooperation between Hood's office and federal agencies has emerged as a central question to the race. Hurst claims that in his time with the feds, he never worked with the AG's office on prosecutions; Hood told the Jackson Free Press that his office often works the federal agencies and never heard of Hurst before he announced his candidacy.
But it's the campaign rhetoric itself that provides the starkest contrast between the candidates and is now defining the race.
The Hurst camp has been unmerciful in its assault on Hood for turning what it characterizes as a blind eye to corruption. In September, the campaign released a TV ad about the prosecution of former Mendenhall Police Chief Bruce Barlow.
A federal grand jury indicted Barlow in February 2013 on eight counts related to a scheme to extort money from people traveling through Mendenhall. The indictment states that Barlow and officers under his supervision stopped and arrested people in the 2,500-person town; Barlow would then offer to dismiss or lessen the potential charges if the individuals forfeited property and cash, which he said would go to the department's drug fund.
"It is simply shocking that the Mississippi attorney general's office would refuse to prosecute a public official who is extorting his fellow citizens, but it is nothing short of stunning that the office of Mississippi's top law enforcement officer would actively help that individual evade prosecution," Hurst told reporters at the Capitol.
Hood called the claims "desperate" and "lies" and put out a statement from Denver Smith, a retired member of the state auditor's office, stating: "In all the time that I worked on the Barlow case, we never heard anything about the attorney general's office doing anything illegal or improper. I knew that the AG's office had closed the case because we were already involved in it with the FBI."
The attorney general explains that he would rather his office focus on more specialized cases that require the resources of AG's office, which employs more attorneys than most law firms in the state, and leave local corruption to local prosecutors, who are more familiar with the judges and grand juries in their jurisdictions.
"When I came in, I said let the DAs handle as much as they're willing to. Now, if it's some big public official (accused of corruption), then that's when we may step in. I've prosecuted three times more public officials than my opponent has, and that's just my AG time. I'm not even adding up the ones I did as (district attorney)," Hood said.
The Money Race and Finish Line
If fundraising and spending is an indicator, Hurst won't go down easily. As of Sept. 28, Hurst's campaign had spent $273,520 for TV commercials compared to Hood's $217,590.
Hurst's Washington connections are also helping. In April, the Republican members of the state's congressional delegation threw a fundraiser at the Washington, D.C. offices of The BGR Group, the lobbying firm founded by Barbour that he rejoined after he left the Mississippi Governor's Mansion.
At the end of July, Hurst reported having $305,589 in cash on hand compared to Hood's $365,239. After the party primaries, where both AG candidates were unopposed, Hurst's campaign bragged of raising more than $200,000 during August.
He's getting help from the Washington-based Republican State Leadership Committee, a political organization founded to support Republicans in down-ticket state-level races, including attorney general, secretary of state and lieutenant governor hopefuls. The RSLC has sent out a number of news releases attacking Hood in recent weeks.
In addition, D.J. Eckert, the RSLC's former deputy political director and former campaign manager of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, is managing Hurst's campaign. Most of Hood's campaign cash this cycle has come from the Denver-based Democratic Attorneys General Association, which has contributed $300,000 to the campaign, which Jonathan Compretta, an attorney for Mike Moore Law Firm, manages.
Nash, the Democratic political observer, believes it will take at least $1 million for Hurst to generate some recognition to even be competitive with the power of Hood's political brand and the power of incumbency.
The central question for voters in this election, in which turnout is likely to be driven by the school-funding ballot referendum initiative, Nash said, is: "Can they show that this incumbent" referring to Hood, "no longer deserves the job?"
On the Issues
Hood: Supports the schools-funding ballot initiative and says he plans to vote for it.
Hurst: Does not support Initiative 42 because, he says, the initiative would put too much power in the hands of an elected official.
Hood: Supported the so-called Personhood Amendment in 2011 and considers himself pro-life. Also, his office has defended the state against a lawsuit over a 2012 state law that would shut down the Jackson Women's Health Organization, the state's only abortion clinic.
Hurst: Supports the attorneys general from around the nation calling for an investigation into Planned Parenthood over leaked videos in which officials from the organization discuss selling tissue from aborted fetuses.
Hood: As AG, Hood's office defended the state of Mississippi against lawsuits over state bans against same-sex marriage and, after the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated such bans, same-sex adoptions.
Hurst: Believes churches have First Amendment right to refuse to perform same-sex weddings and worries about what will happen to churches' tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service.
Hood: Says he has brought more than $2 billion to the state from settlements against corporations he says harmed Mississippi taxpayers.
Hurst: Says he would also prosecute corporations that have done harm to Mississippi taxpayers and points to his role in prosecuting companies for violating immigration laws, including Howard Industries and the Country Club of Jackson.
Hood: Maintains that he has prosecuted triple the number of public corruption cases as Hurst, but that he prefers to leave local corruption cases to local officials who know the terrain better than assistant attorneys general from his office.
Hurst: Touts the prosecutions of several high-profile cases, including former prisons Commissioner Christopher Epps and businessman Cecil McCrory, and vows to make fighting corruption a hallmark of his administration as AG.
Enforcing Open Records
Hood: Said that district attorneys and county attorneys can prosecute campaign-finance disclosure violations, which are misdemeanors. "The problem is the law itself—it's so vague," Hood told the Jackson Free Press.
Hurst: Said if sunshine laws aren't being followed in Mississippi, if he's elected, he's going to figure out why.