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Mississippi AG Jim Hood: The Last Democrat in Dixie

Somebody forgot to tell Mississippi’s attorney general that his party doesn’t win in the Deep South anymore.

Jim Hood speaks with a folksy twang. He says grace before dinner and styles his hair like the late country singer Conway Twitty. An American flag nearly as long as Hood juts from the brick portico of his suburban Jackson, Miss., home, and just inside the front door, he keeps a Good News Bible in plain view for guests to peruse. Out back he stores his tractor and guns in a woodshed and on days when he needs to get his mind off work as Mississippi’s attorney general, he retreats to the shed, where he takes used ammunition casings from his weekend hunting excursions and reloads them manually, shell by shell.

You might say Jim Hood is about as Mississippi as you can get. In one respect, though, he’s unusual for a politician in his home state: He’s a Democrat -- and, on certain occasions, a liberal one. He prosecuted a Ku Klux Klan member for a 40-year-old murder and sued pharmaceutical companies over high drug prices. He declined to join a challenge to the national health-care law, and believes his state should participate in the expansion of Medicaid. None of that has seemed to hurt him politically.

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Every other statewide officeholder in Mississippi is a Republican. In fact, across the seven states of the Deep South, every other governor, attorney general and secretary of state belongs to the GOP. Yet Hood has held onto his job easily for nearly a decade. In the 2011 election, his third successful bid for attorney general, he won a higher percentage of votes than the successful Republican nominee for governor, Phil Bryant. His electoral victories raise a simple question with a complicated answer: How does he manage to do that?

One reason is that he has a knack for picking up independent votes -- even though Mississippi is one of the reddest of the red states, with just under half the voters identifying as Republicans, according to Harrison Hickman, Hood’s pollster. A little more than a third are Democrats. The rest call themselves independents. “Any Democrat who is successful in statewide politics in the South,” Hickman says, “is somebody who can talk to independents, because you cannot be elected on the strength of Democrats.”

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And Hood can talk to independents. Bobby Moak, the Democratic minority leader in the state house, says Hood reaches independents because “he takes the right stance on God and guns.”

To be sure, there are other explanations. In 2003, when he first ran for attorney general, winning wasn’t quite as difficult as it is now for Democrats running statewide. Hood had been a district attorney for eight years in northern Mississippi and had the endorsement of the retiring four-term attorney general, Mike Moore. In all of his campaigns, he has been able to count on generous funding from trial lawyers across the country. Those things have mattered. Nonetheless, Hood’s ability to cultivate a reputation as an average Mississippian begins with religion and firearms.

Hood’s parents named him after the Book of James, which he points out, “talks about taking care of the least among us.” He says “it’s the job of the government to take care of the people who need it.” Hood insists he isn’t “one of those Bible thumpers,” but religion plays a prominent role in the way he thinks about his career. Here’s how he explains perhaps the biggest turn in his professional trajectory, when a scarcity of jobs in the oil and gas industry convinced him to go to law school: “I think the good Lord opens his doors and closes them.”

As for guns, Hood earned a “B” on gun rights from the National Rifle Association in 2011. He comes to work every day armed with a 9mm handgun, and at home he keeps a stock of shotguns and rifles in a vault, including an antique bolt-action rifle that is the exact model his grandfather once owned. He hunts deer or birds almost every weekend in December and January.

So on one level, Hood’s appeal is cultural -- voters look at him and sense he is one of them. But he has also chosen issues that appeal across party lines. “Results matter more than party ID in most elections,” says Rob McKenna, a friend of Hood’s who served two terms as a Republican attorney general in a Democratic stronghold, Washington state. “I don’t think most voters are comfortable with the idea of a highly partisan AG.”

Much of Hood’s agenda veers away from divisive political battles and addresses crime detested by Democrats and Republicans alike. He has targeted deadbeat dads who haven’t paid child support, child pornographers on the Internet and men who abuse their wives or girlfriends. After Hurricane Katrina devastated coastal Mississippi, Hood recouped money for individuals and families who had been victimized by companies that engaged in home repair fraud.

During his second term, Hood seized on the fact that Mississippi had the fifth-highest incidence of domestic homicide of any state in the country. He created a protective order registry and a fee exemption for domestic violence victims seeking a restraining order. Under Hood, the rate of domestic homicides dropped to the 13th highest in the nation.

Republicans sometimes say that the nature of his job has made it easy for him to draw support across party lines. “It’s real popular when you’re locking up crooks,” says sometime adversary Terry Brown, the Republican senate president pro tem.

But Hood has also taken up a few causes that have touched a sensitive Mississippi nerve. Early in his first term, he reopened the infamous 1964 case in which local Ku Klux Klan members brutally murdered three civil rights workers in Neshoba County for pushing black voter registration. In the original trial, federal prosecutors tried to prove former Klan preacher Edgar Ray Killen was a central figure in orchestrating the killings, but the jury determined that the evidence was too circumstantial. Four decades later, Hood secured three 20-year manslaughter convictions against Killen.

Because Hood’s recipe for success hinges on his reputation as a political moderate, his adversaries often try to paint him as partisan. The opportunities for doing this usually involve a national issue with clear red and blue positions. In the summer of 2012, for example, Ceara Sturgis and her partner Emily Key applied to rent the taxpayer-funded Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum for a same-sex wedding. The agriculture commissioner, Cindy Hyde-Smith, refused, citing state law that prohibits gay marriage. Hood supported the couple’s right to hold the wedding.

Republican leaders implied that Hood’s legal opinion against the agriculture commissioner was an attempt to keep pace with trends inside his own party at the national level. “Attorney General Hood’s legal advice goes against the wishes of an overwhelming majority of Mississippians,” Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said at the time. “Based on my personal and religious beliefs, I strongly object to this,” Hyde-Smith said in a press release.

Hood skirted the issue by making a distinction between a marriage and a wedding. His office ruled that there was a technical difference between a marriage, which involves a government license and confers legal rights on a couple, and a wedding, which amounts to a personal commitment ceremony. Current state law in Mississippi doesn’t prohibit same-sex weddings, he said, only marriages.

Hood does disagree with his state’s prohibition of same-sex marriage. “What people do in their private lives is their own business,” he says. But he insists that, whatever his personal opinion might be, he would defend Mississippi state law in court. “The state constitution defines marriage as between a man and woman,” he says, “and it’s my job to defend that to the bitter end. I have my personal beliefs and I don’t let them interfere.”

On a day-to-day basis, Hood’s job consists largely of negotiating with Republicans. One recent afternoon, he walked across the street to the state house in Jackson to ask for money from the senate appropriations chair, Buck Clarke. The informal get-together involved several potential lawsuits filed by the federal government, including one alleging that the state wasn’t providing adequate care to the mentally ill. Hood had negotiated a deal with the U.S. Department of Justice specifying that if the state spent an initial $10 million on an independent monitor to jump-start an overhaul of the state’s mental health system, the federal government wouldn’t sue. If Mississippi didn’t comply, the lawsuit could wind up costing the state millions in litigation fees, as had happened in other states already. The thrust of Hood’s appeal wasn’t moral, it was financial. He argued that the price of challenging the feds was too high.

That’s something Hood likes to do: present his policy choices in fiscal rather than programmatic terms. On the same day he approached Clarke about mental health care, he talked about other potential lawsuits by the federal government over prison conditions and environmental cleanup. Some initial spending by the legislature, he said, might avoid much larger litigation costs. In every case, he persuaded Republicans to appropriate funds on the front end by making a case for financial prudence in the long run. In another state with less conservative politics, a Democrat might talk up the social benefits involved. In Mississippi, Hood avoids that strategy. Instead, he is quick to tout the more than $500 million he has recouped for the state since taking office in 2003.

“I look out for the coffers. That’s the way I look at it,” he says, describing his philosophy in giving the state advice on legal matters. “Are you going to cost the state money by dragging out this litigation and defending a losing case?”

When Hood declined to sign onto the lawsuit in protest against the Affordable Care Act -- much to the chagrin of state Republicans -- his explanation was once again financial, not moral. “I just didn’t think that the state of Mississippi needed to spend any money on lawyers to file a ‘me-too’ brief,” he says.

It’s a fine line, though. Hood readily admits he thinks the health law’s Medicaid expansion would be helpful in Mississippi, a state with some of the worst health statistics in the country and a large population that can’t afford health insurance. But, he says, it’s just not his call.

At the time Hood was negotiating with Republicans in the legislature to avoid lawsuits from the federal government, Democratic lawmakers were threatening to defund Medicaid as a way to win health policy concessions from Republicans. Despite Hood’s efforts to appear apolitical, the “D” by his name seems to automatically make him a player in such partisan dramas. When Hood wrote an opinion holding that Mississippi law empowered the insurance commissioner, a Republican, to set up a state-based health insurance exchange under the federal law, GOP Gov. Bryant dismissed Hood’s interpretation as political, not legal. “This ruling by Attorney General Jim Hood is not surprising,” said Mick Bullock, a Bryant spokesman, in a prepared statement. “Gov. Bryant understands that as a Democrat, General Hood was placed in an extremely difficult position.”

“It’s become more partisan now than when I was AG,” says Mike Moore, Hood’s predecessor and a Democrat who was attorney general for 16 years under Democratic and Republican governors. “It’s been tough for Jim. At least I had other Democratic allies [in state government]. It makes it harder for him to promote legislation and get things passed.”

Last year, for example, the Republican legislative majority enacted a “sunshine” law allowing state officials to hire outside counsel if they disagree with legal strategy prescribed by the attorney general. In the past, they could use outside counsel only if the attorney general declined to get involved in the case. Hood says the law is unconstitutional because it undermines his role as an independent legal counsel to the state government. It might mean the state will choose to settle in cases when it’s in the public interest to go to trial, he says.

The new law also calls for scrutiny of payments to trial lawyers working for the state on contingency fees in lawsuits, typically against national companies. Corporations have long criticized this system, arguing that it is a form of patronage used to reward Hood’s biggest campaign contributors. They see trial lawyers as the main reason why he wins re-election, and say he benefits from their financial backing and then rewards them with profitable cases afterward. The sunshine law undermines that patronage by discouraging the use of private-sector attorneys. It was a slap in the face by Republicans, says Danny Cupit, a trial lawyer who represented Hood’s office in a lawsuit against the insurance company State Farm.

Despite the theatrics on both sides after the law passed, Democrats haven’t challenged it in court and Republicans haven’t disowned Hood as their legal representative. At least not yet.

Brian Peteritas is a GOVERNING contributor.
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