Will Waller’s background appeal to Democrats and Republicans? He thinks so

Published 8:32 am Friday, March 1, 2019

A retired chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court says he has the best chance to win the governor’s race because he believes he will appeal to voters across party lines.

Bill Waller Jr. of Jackson said he’s filing paperwork Friday to enter the Republican primary. It’s the last day for candidates to qualify for statewide, regional, legislative and county offices in Mississippi this year.

Waller, 67, served 21 years on the Supreme Court with the last 10 as chief justice. He’s making his first run for statewide office and acknowledged in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday that he’s getting a late start after retiring in January.

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“I did not leave the court with the intention to do that,” he said of running for governor. “But when I put my notice in, I started getting calls and letters and visits. And, frankly, I was not satisfied with the candidates in the race. We’ve got some big, big problems in this state, and the lieutenant governor did not seem to be interested in trying anything new or addressing (problems), in my opinion, in a meaningful way.”

Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves of Flowood entered this year with more than $7 million to run for governor, and he has said he is focused on strengthening the state economy and improving educational attainment levels. State Rep. Robert Foster of Hernando is running a lower-budget race in the Republican gubernatorial primary but has been campaigning for weeks.

Current Republican Gov. Phil Bryant is limited to two terms and can’t run again. He has endorsed Reeves.

At least three Democrats are running for governor — Attorney General Jim Hood of Houston, Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith of Jackson and retired Jackson State University employee Velesha P. Williams of Florence.

One independent, David R. Singletary, had qualified by Thursday.

Party primaries are in August, and the general election is in November.

Waller was elected to the Supreme Court three times in a district that encompasses the central part of the state. Although judicial candidates run without party labels in Mississippi, parties are allowed to endorse candidates and Waller was backed by the Republican Party. He said Republicans “philosophically are closer to me” than Democrats, and he has voted for Republicans for governor.

His father, the late Gov. Bill Waller Sr., served as a Democrat from 1972 to 1976 and later supported two Republican governors — Kirk Fordice, who served 1992-2000, and Haley Barbour, who served 2004-2012.

“I have the best chance in November of a Republican to be elected because of my background,” Waller Jr. said Thursday at his law office in downtown Jackson. “My dad was a Democrat. People, I think, are comfortable with me from the Democrats and Republicans and independents. … I think I have the best chance of winning in November.”

Waller said he doesn’t know how much a gubernatorial race will cost.

“I’m not going to go out and mortgage the house to run for governor,” he said. “I’m going to run on whatever I get.”

Waller said he wants to improve infrastructure, health care, workforce training and education.

“My commitment to the teachers is that we will have whatever raise we can have every year until we get the pay up to the Southeastern average,” Waller said.