June 1, 2013 7:28:54 PM
Carl Smith - [email protected]
An apparent rift in the Democratic Party emerged this week after photos surfaced placing three aldermen-elects and a party executive committee member at Republican mayoral candidate Dan Moreland's Wednesday fund-raiser.
The future of at least one Oktibbeha County Democratic Party Executive Committee member's status with the party is in question after officials said those photos prove she publicly supports the GOP candidate. Also, Mississippi Democratic Party bylaws state the group can choose not to certify candidates in the future who openly support the party's opposition.
While the Dispatch does not cover party fund-raisers, photos of recently elected Democratic Aldermen Roy A. Perkins, Henry Vaughn and Lisa Wynn at the May 29 Moreland fund-raiser were posted to social media shortly after the event.
Photos were also posted to social media showing Oktibbeha County Democratic Party Executive Committee member Dorothy Isaac and Elzena Neal, the wife of executive committee member Kennedy Neal, at the same event. Isaac also serves as a Starkville Parks Commissioner, a board run by Moreland which has recently come under fire due to budgetary issues that surfaced in its 2012 fiscal year audit.
Local Democrats said they are outraged at their fellow party members after the photos surfaced. Action could be taken at the party's late June meeting to remove the two executive committee members from the board, they said. The Oktibbeha County Democratic Party meets on the fourth Tuesday of every month.
Democrats also discussed the issue of elected party members supporting Republicans during a Saturday election strategy meeting. Sources at that meeting said members asked if officials could remove the three sitting aldermen from the Democratic Party, but the group declined to take action in the unofficial gathering.
State Democratic Party bylaws say the seat of any executive committee member can be declared vacant by a two-thirds vote by present members if "it is brought to the attention of the committee that a committee member has publicly, actively or financially supported the candidacy of any person not running as a Democrat, except in non-partisan elections."
The bylaws also state no candidate shall be certified to run in a Democratic Primary for any office "who is not in accord with the principles and rules of the Democratic Party" and "who will not pledge support to the candidacy of all party nominees at all levels running in the same election for which nomination is being sought."
"No candidate, while holding elective office as a Democrat or as a Democratic Party officials shall be certified to run in a Democratic Primary for any office...who has within the preceding four years publicly or financially supported the election to office of any person not running as a Democrat," the bylaws state.
The local Democratic Party does not financially support its candidates, party chairman Chris Taylor said, but the public show of support by the break-away members could be enough to warrant their ousting.
"All it takes is one person bringing it up (at the June meeting)," he said. "We already have the pictures off Facebook: (Isaac), Roy, Henry and Lisa. It's a disappointment to run as a Democrat and then have them openly support a Republican for mayor. If they want to conduct themselves as Republicans, then they can switch parties. I don't have anything to say to them."
Rumors began circulating within the community about candidates and their political allegiances before the May 7 primary. Neither Perkins, Vaughn or Wynn publicly endorsed Moreland to the media in the run-up to the Tuesday election.
The Dispatch was told numerous times that Wynn was sighted on the campaign trail with at least one Starkville Tea Party member before the Ward 2 primary and run-off elections, but those allegation could not be substantiated - the Dispatch did not observe the pair campaigning together.
Starkville Tea Party Chairman Jane Vemer told the Dispatch in an interview prior to Ward 2's May 7 primary that the group was not officially supporting one candidate in that race, but individual members had the freedom to back whomever they chose.
Two Dispatch reporters did observe Wynn and Vaughn walking with two Moreland campaigners in Chandler Park, a Ward 7 housing community, Tuesday. When asked what they were doing, neither said they were actively campaigning for the Republican. The Dispatch asked to see campaign material which the reporters observed having "Moreland for Mayor" signage, but one campaigner denied the newspaper's request.
Vaughn told the Dispatch he was out checking on his ward, while Wynn casually said they were "just goofing off."
"The outrage is building. First it was rumors this was happening, then we heard people confirm them. When I've talked with Democrats in other counties, it seems it's happening everywhere," said Patti Drapala, a member of the local Democratic executive committee. "It makes me angry that they even put a 'D' by their name. Here's my philosophy: If you say you're a member of the Democratic Party, your obligation, according to the bylaws, is to support the Democratic candidate. If you want to support the Republican candidate, be an Independent and do so honestly. If you sit on the executive committee, whether that be with the state or county, that's grounds for dismissal."
Drapala tempered her quotes by saying she was speaking as a dues-paying Democrat and not for the entire executive committee. She attended a 3rd Congressional Democratic Caucus meeting Saturday in Philadelphia to discuss the issue of key party officials and candidates breaking ranks and crossing party lines.
"We Democrats are concerned that the Tea Party is trying to infiltrate county Democratic parties, and other Democrats have brought that up to state executive committee members," she said. "We know what we have to do: We want to tell people trying to infiltrate and divide us that this is not going to happen. We are determined to stand firm as a party. If you're proud about being a Tea Party member, don't hide under the cloak of being a Democrat or Independent."
Campaign financing issues were also raised during Wynn's Ward 2 run. A county resident said Wynn told him that the Moreland campaign helped finance her run for city office. The Dispatch granted this source anonymity because he feared retribution against his business by local Republicans for coming out with the information.
When asked by the Dispatch if he helped fund Wynn's campaign, Moreland and his campaign manager, Ricky Bishop, denied the claim outright. Wynn said she does not discuss campaign financing or election strategy before the May run-off.
In his May 28 campaign financing report, Moreland reported spending $25,373.43 since the end of April. A large portion of that money was used on political advertising, whether it be printing fees, campaign mailers, candidate signage or general radio, print and television commercials. Wynn's name did not appear on his itemized disbursements, which track spending valued at more than $200.
Wynn's final report stated she spent $650 on her entire campaign and did not receive any donations for the runoff election. She originally filed two pre-primary reports with the city before the May 7 election. An April 30 report, which was both stamped "received" by the city and signed by her that same day, claimed she received and spent $200 in non-itemized transactions. Another report received May 1 by the city was dated April 29 by Wynn. That report showed she received $750 in contributions, $150 of which was listed as itemized, and spent the same amount in that time period.
Dispatch records requests revealed no itemized spending records were submitted by Wynn through the entire election.
Wynn's 2012 statement of economic interest, an income form mandated by the Mississippi Ethics Commission for candidates, did not list any businesses in which she receives more than $2,500 per year in income, owns 10 percent or $5,000 stake or which she is employed. It did, however, state Wynn received in excess of $1,000 in compensation from the Department of Human Services.
A similar form Wynn filed in 2010 for her unsuccessful run at the county tax collector's job did not list any compensation over $1,000 during the previous calendar year. She did provide supplemental information on that form which stated she then received SNAP and rent-assist benefits from the state and unemployment benefits which expired March 2010.
Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk, whom Wynn defeated in the May runoff, reported self-funding her campaign throughout the entire election. Since Jan. 1, Sistrunk collected and spent $884.06. Early in the campaign, she told the Dispatch she would recycle previous election signs used in her first run.
In comparison, incoming Ward 3 Republican Alderman David Little received $3,152 and spent $1,870 in his first attempt at office. The Ward 3 race was the highest-grossing battle in terms of campaign contributions, as Little and current Alderman Eric Parker raised a combined $5,323.
Former Ward 6 candidate Lerin Pruitt, another first-time candidate, raised $2,277 and spent $3,514.28 in his race against Perkins. Janette Self, a former Ward 7 alderman who ran against Vaughn in the May primary, reported $2,287 in contributions and $2,154.49 in expenditures.
Another first-time candidate, Ward 4 Alderman-elect Jason Walker, received $1,930 in contributions and spent $1,242 in his race against candidate John Gaskin. Gaskin's run was the first he attempted in Ward 4 - he was defeated in the 2009 Ward 3 election against Parker. Gaskin's financial report stated he received $1,074.83 and disbursed $872.82. Documents show Gaskin's sole itemized contribution before the May primary was a $419.36 donation he made to his own campaign.
Seeking cross-party voters is by no means a new election strategy on the municipal, county, state or national level. The Moreland camp previously released a political advertisement featuring Eileen Carr-Tabb, the person attributed to posting the photos to social media and a Wynn supporter who was observed at City Hall during Ward 2 affidavit processing, discussing her support for Moreland and reaching across party lines.
"I'm not going to be a mayor for just Republicans and not just for Democrats; I'll be the people's mayor," Moreland said in a statement issued by Bishop.
Bishop elaborated on Moreland's comments, saying voters "get too hung up on party lines."
Upon viewing the Ward 2 poll books, the Dispatch learned former Republican Alderman Rodney Lincoln voted in the May 7 Democratic Primary. The Oktibbeha County Republican Party lists Lincoln as a member of its executive committee. A copy of the party's bylaws was unavailable Friday and Saturday, and local GOP Chairman Marnita Henderson did not return phone calls. Bishop, who also serves as the Oktibbeha County GOP vice chairman, said he was unaware of the bylaw's provisions on executive committee members voting in Democratic primaries.
Lincoln said he did not think his position with the local GOP would be undermined by his participation in the Ward 2 Democratic Primary. Lincoln did not reveal for which candidate - Wynn or sitting Alderman Sandra Sistrunk - he voted.
"There was an election being held, and that's my right," he said. "I don't think it matters because once you get to the table, it doesn't matter if you're a Democrat or Republican, most everyone on that board works together, or is at least supposed to."
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch