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Charlie Mitchell: 'Roadgate' has promise as issue in governor's race

 

Charlie Mitchell

 

 

OXFORD -- As things stood, there was no red meat on the table if, as expected, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves squared off with Attorney General Jim Hood in next year's contest to be governor of Mississippi. 

 

Without "roadgate," Reeves would tar Hood as a Democrat (a cuss word to most white Mississippians) and claim Hood is a clone of Nancy Pelosi. Hood would campaign low-key and point out that Reeves, as a Republican, is no friend to working people. 

 

That all changed with one news story reported excellently by Jackson media. 

 

The gist was that Reeves or his minions may have pressured the Mississippi Department of Transportation to spend $2 million only for the convenience of Reeves and his neighbors who live in a gated subdivision east of Jackson. The money would come from a $43 million pool to improve Lakeland Drive. It would pay for a spur or frontage road that would make it easier to turn left onto one of Mississippi's most heavily traveled four-lane roads to suburbia. 

 

It was MDOT Director Melissa McGrath who told reporters the spur was not necessary and was being built due to "political pressure." 

 

Reeves responded forcefully and immediately, saying that while his neighborhood association may have supported the project, he had steered 100 percent clear of any involvement. 

 

Next came Central District Highway Commissioner Dick Hall who tabled the project, defended McGrath and insisted nothing was awry. Hall served 24 years in the Legislature, is active in Republican politics and won his current term with only 52 percent of the vote. Hall took the bullet, saying Reeves had not pressured him and telling The Clarion-Ledger, "If anyone's to blame for this it's me." 

 

That's when Hood entered the picture. Attorneys general serve a complicated role. As a state's top lawyer, they defend a state when it's sued. As a state's top prosecutor, they are on the front lines in fighting corruption. 

 

With the project stopped (or at least on hold until after the election) and the Legislature not subject to any records retention requirements, Hood wrote a letter to anyone and everyone who may have had anything to do with the spur. It said, in essence, they risk prosecution for obstruction of justice if they destroy any records or correspondence related to the matter. It also indicated immunity might be available to anyone who came forward with specific evidence of wrongdoing, or at least be treated as a confidential informant. 

 

Reeves said Hood is grandstanding. 

 

Hood, a district attorney before being elected to statewide office in 2003, said that remark was predictable. "I've prosecuted people for 25 years and they invariably attack the messenger," Hood said. 

 

Reeves, who had announced his own investigation before Hood sent his shot-across-the-bow letter, also termed media reports on the matter "false and discredited." 

 

It's pretty clear the lieutenant governor wants this all to go away, and the sooner the better. 

 

Perhaps it will. 

 

Mississippi has a solid majority of conservative Republican voters. Reeves, first elected state treasurer in 2003 at the age of 29, has been courting their favor since. He's term-limited as lieutenant governor and ready for the next rung on the political ladder. 

 

Hood says he doesn't know whether there was any wrongdoing, but if it turns out there was the people should know about it. 

 

There has been some reaction that if Reeves was involved with the spur, he was merely doing what politicians are elected to do. Much of the duty of any elected official is to bring home the bacon for constituents. Not just MDOT but every state agency everywhere constantly gets calls or letters from legislators asking for preferential treatment, wanting their pet projects pushed to the head of the line. 

 

The point, though, is that it's illegal for people in office to personally profit from their public jobs. As Hood pointed out, the market value of all homes in the neighborhood might rise once access became more convenient, so at least in theory Reeves could pocket dollars based on how he influenced (if he influenced) public spending. (Perversely, that means his neighbors stood a better chance to get the road if he lived somewhere else.) 

 

Another issue is whether the project's purpose was safety, which would be viable, or purely a perk, which would be a no-no. There are decent arguments either way. 

 

In any event, what stood to be a rather predictable contest now has a whiff of scandal. Sometimes that's all it takes to sway voters one way or the other. 

 

Charlie Mitchell is an associate dean of journalism at the University of Mississippi. Email reaches him at [email protected]

 

 

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