Rare statewide Democrat tries to hold on in Deep South

AP News
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Posted: Oct 30, 2015 10:49 AM
Rare statewide Democrat tries to hold on in Deep South

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood is hardly out of place in Southern politics: He speaks often about his Christian faith and rails against "perverts" and online predators who target children.

He's a country guy with a less-than-polished speaking style. And yet he's a rarity, one of the few Democrats still holding statewide elected office in the solidly Republican South. That hasn't drained the swagger from his campaign as he seeks a fourth term as the state's top legal officer.

Nor has it gotten in the way of his folksy roots. Even as Hood tangles in a legal battle with Google, he has moved his family away from the state capital of Jackson and back to his small hometown northern Mississippi, where he often works out of a satellite office. And he keeps the Conway Twitty haircut that's an editorial cartoonist's dream.

"Sometimes, I don't get my hair cut as frequently as I should," Hood, 53, demurred in an interview with The Associated Press last week. "I mean, I did grow up in the '80s."

Republicans salivate at the prospect of unseating Hood and claiming all of Mississippi's statewide offices. Gov. Phil Bryant and other GOP statewide officials are campaigning with challenger Mike Hurst in Republican strongholds before Tuesday's election.

But Hood has raised significantly more cash than Hurst, a former federal prosecutor who helped bring corruption charges against the ex-commissioner of Mississippi's prison system. Hood is proof that even in a strongly Republican state, people will sometimes vote for a candidate rather than a party label, said Marty Wiseman, a retired political scientist from Mississippi State University.

"He doesn't try to be a Democrat that acts like a Republican," Wiseman said. "A lot of people appreciate his anti-establishment, anti-in-crowd type of approach to things."

Hood is in heavy rotation with a TV commercial that emphasizes his rural background while depicting his opponent as a rich, spoiled lapdog who has gone soft on the country club crowd. One shot shows a tiny terrier wearing a purple sweater embroidered with "Hurst," sitting at a table with a fancy dog dish and, incongruously, a glass of white wine. In the same ad, Hood wears jeans and a comfortable shirt while sitting outdoors on the back of his old pickup truck with a Labrador retriever — his actual truck, he says, and his teenage son's dog, Buck.

Hurst counters with his own ad in which he's standing outside, wearing jeans and a casual shirt, talking about values he learned in a small town from his dad, who drove a log truck and worked offshore and on the railroad.

Another Hurst commercial shows cutout photos of Hood's head and President Barack Obama's head, each on a cartoon body. The two stick figures pat each other on the back like old friends, and an announcer says, "Jim Hood and Barack Obama's liberal policies are wrong for Mississippi."

Hurst says Hood has failed to challenge the Obama administration on immigration and has fallen short in prosecuting public corruption.

"Mississippi needs new blood and new leadership in our attorney general's office, not a career politician involved and invested in the good ol' boy system that systematically sweeps crime under the rug in Mississippi," Hurst said at the state Capitol.

Hood says Republicans are trying to depict him as something he's not. He doesn't hide his party affiliation — and even notes, with pride, that he and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida are the only two Democrats remaining in statewide office from Oklahoma to Florida. That sweep across the South excludes North Carolina, which still has six Democrats elected statewide.

"It's ironic that my opponent in the race is the only one who draws a paycheck, or did before he quit, that drew a paycheck from the Obama administration," Hood said.

Hood says he's not simply a rubber stamp for Democratic policies. He and his staff have defended laws that restrict abortion and ban same-sex couples from marrying or adopting children. And he's worked to take on less political cases.

In his legal fight with Google, Hood has questioned whether the Internet search engine improperly helps people find pirated music and drugs without a prescription. The California-based company says Hood is infringing on its free-speech rights.

During his first term in 2005, Hood helped a local district attorney prosecute a reputed onetime Ku Klux Klan leader, Edgar Ray Killen, for the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Mississippi — a case the FBI called "Mississippi Burning." It was the first time the state had brought murder charges in the case, and a mixed-race jury convicted Killen of manslaughter 31 years to the day after the killings.

Bryant has frequently criticized Hood for not joining attorneys general from several other states in suing to block the federal health overhaul that President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010.

"It was a political lawsuit," Hood said. "It was more about politics than about the law itself."

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.