Mississippi Democrats improperly excluded candidate for governor, judge says

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi could have a Democratic primary for governor in August because a judge ruled Friday that the party improperly excluded a candidate from the ballot.

The state Democratic Party immediately filed notice that it will ask the Mississippi Supreme Court to overturn the judge's ruling on the candidacy of Bob Hickingbottom.

“I appreciate the court's consideration. We hope to get a more favorable ruling on appeal,” the committee's attorney, Gerald Mumford, told The Associated Press.

The state Democratic Executive Committee decided in February that Hickingbottom could not be on the ballot as a Democrat. Hickingbottom, who has described himself as a political operative, ran for governor as a Constitution Party candidate in 2019.

The executive committee also excluded Gregory Wash from running for governor this year, after he ran a low-budget campaign for governor in the Democratic primary four years ago.

The party's decisions left Brandon Presley, a four-term public service commissioner, as the only Democratic candidate for governor. Wash did not challenge the party's decision, but Hickingbottom filed a lawsuit.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves is seeking a second term, and he faces two challengers in the GOP primary — military veteran David Hardigree and physician Dr. John Witcher.

Mississippi primaries are Aug. 8, and the general election is Nov. 7.

Presley campaign spokesman Michael Beyer on Friday responded to questions about a potential Democratic primary by focusing on a welfare misspending case that developed while Reeves was lieutenant governor.

“We welcome any legally qualified candidate to enter the race, and our campaign will continue to focus on Tate Reeves’ failed record of allowing criminals to misspend $77 million of Mississippians’ hard-earned taxpayer dollars meant for working families on luxury cars, steak dinners, and even a volleyball stadium," Beyer said.

Judge Forrest A. Johnson Jr. wrote that the Democratic Party was not allowed to reject Hickingbottom's candidacy on grounds that Hickinbottom has failed to file an economic interest statement with the Ethics Commission.

Johnson wrote that Hickingbottom meets the qualifications to run for governor, which are in the state constitution: A candidate must be at least 30 years old, a U.S. citizen at least 20 years and a resident of Mississippi at least five years before the election.

Hickingbottom is Black, and Presley is white. Attracting support from Black voters is an important part of winning a Democratic primary. Presley's campaign did not mention race Friday, but Mississippi Republican Party chairman Frank Bordeaux did.

“Brandon Presley and his Democratic Party allies corruptly pushed his African American opponent off the ballot,” Bordeaux said in a statement. “A judge just ruled their actions are illegal and unethical, and now Presley faces a primary challenge. Why did Brandon Presley work so hard to prevent an African American candidate from accessing the ballot?”

HIckingbottom filed a campaign finance report this month showing he raised and spent no money through April. Presley reported $1.6 million in his campaign fund.

Reeves reported $9 million in campaign money, while Witcher reported about $21,000 and Hardigree reported no money.

Emily Wagster Pettus, The Associated Press