/Bill Waller Jr, emboldened by critiques of Tate Reeves, sharpens focus on GOP frontrunner

Bill Waller Jr, emboldened by critiques of Tate Reeves, sharpens focus on GOP frontrunner

Waller, who was appointed to the Mississippi Supreme Court in January, had been there for 21 years and entered the restaurant confidently, knowing that he has nothing to lose. He believes that this whole campaign is about giving Mississippians an alternative, about offering pragmatic solutions that are not popular but necessary for the state’s future. With a loud, “How are you doing?” he made his presence felt and all the men who come here to eat breakfast six days per week turned to him. Waller was ordered a coffee and smoked sausage biscuit by a campaign staffer. Waller made sure to shake hands with everyone before he sat down at his table. Waller already had two complaints about Lt. Gov., one of his Republican primary rivals, by the time the biscuit reached his seat. Tate Reeves. Willis Lott, ex-president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, said that he supports Bill Waller “because he has vision for Mississippi.” “Tate Reeves has never shown that he has vision in his time as lieutenant governor.” Plus, he’s arrogant and a lot people know it.” Lott gave a $1,000 check to a campaign worker before Waller left for the breakfast. Over the next hour, Waller was greeted by 30 more people who came to the Hardee’s to offer their support. Waller was able to hear more than twenty-six people speak negatively about their opponent by the end of day. Waller claims that this sentiment inspired him to reconsider his campaign strategy. Waller shared his experience with Mississippi Today: “I have traveled a lot, and I have met more people than my count. But there is one thing I haven’t heard much about: ‘I’m voting for Tate because he’s the best candidate.'” “If I had 1,000 people to talk to, there would only be two or three of them. Waller has shifted his focus from merely offering solutions to the state’s problems to the hundreds of angry voters who have prompted him. Waller is increasingly pointing the finger at Reeves who continues to promote what Waller calls “failed policy” that has fostered these very problems. Waller, a Baptist deacon, blesses every meal and starts campaign meetings with prayer. He has been cautious about disparaging his opponents and spent weeks repeating the refrain: “I won’t go negative.” But, as he recently stated in interviews with Mississippi Today, and later in remarks at a Mississippi Press Association event, his hesitation in knocking Reeves down is beginning to subside. Waller spoke about the lottery to a group made up of journalists, editors, and publishers at the annual Mississippi Press Association conference. He also discussed the controversy surrounding a $2 million state-funded road that would have taken Reeves’ home from a gated community to make it easier to access the highway. “(The lottery is not a reliable (revenue) source. Waller stated that there isn’t enough money to do everything. Waller said, “Tate cannot build his driveway using that.” Waller’s strategy has been shifting because the clock is ticking and there are only six weeks before the GOP primary. Waller spent almost every day in June on the road, having traveled more than his competitors in May. He told Mississippi Today that although he feels momentum in the state’s key regions, internal polls show him still trailing Reeves. Waller’s campaign bought valuable airtime in all the state’s television markets, with the exception of Jackson where internal polls look promising for his campaign. Memphis is where ad buying is expensive. Reeves has largely ignored Waller, their GOP primary opponent Robert Foster and instead focused his campaign messaging around Attorney General Jim Hood who is the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for governor. Reeves continues to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars per week in television airtime. Waller said that he does not understand Reeves strategy of disregarding primary opponents. However, he will continue adapting his strategy to the conditions on the trail. Waller stated, “I wish everyone said, I’ve read up about you and I believe you’re the most qualified candidate.’ But they don’t.” But a lot of them said, “I wouldn’t vote Tate if it was the last man on the moon.” There are many people who believe that. “I believe that they see me as an alternative to Tate when they look at the decision box. It’s mine, and I will take it wherever I can. It is out there. It’s amazing. It’s amazing. Waller walked down Main Street, Collins, visiting voters and going door-to-door under the scorching June sun. He visited the DuBard School for Language Disorders of the University of Southern Mississippi. He learned from the teachers and administrators about their work and asked how he could help them. He also stopped by Southeastern Construction in Hattiesburg where Patrick Ward, the owner, has opened a skills training school. Waller had many questions for Ward about the academy as well as about Ward’s experiences with Mississippi workforce training. Waller visited the Collins Covington County hospital, where he spoke with Ward about healthcare finance and the possibility for “Medicaid reform,” which would see federal dollars go to hospitals under the Affordable Care Act. He visited the Covington Country School District’s main office, where he spoke with the superintendent about teacher salaries and classroom needs. Waller, an attorney since 1977 wears a suit almost every day. He will wear the jacket if he is giving a speech. His style is to roll up his sleeves in a white shirt and a brightly colored tie. As a chronic note-taker, Anderson always carries a pen in his shirt pocket and a pad in his bag. His Honda minivan is filled with campaign paraphernalia and Waller yard signs. Michael Anderson, an ex-law clerk at Waller’s Supreme Court, is usually the driver. Waller’s earlier description of Reeves on the campaign trail manifested itself in the presence and prompting of a reporter for the entire 17-hour period. A woman standing outside the Collins Covington County Courthouse mentioned that she had seen Waller in a TV commercial and encouraged him to do his best in defeating Reeves. Harry Mauldin, the owner of Main Street Barber Shop downtown Collins, agreed with this sentiment. Mauldin stated, “I lean toward Bill Waller because a lot of my friends come in here to say that they’re also supporting Waller.” “Tate may not be a bad man, but it seems that most people around here are supporting Waller,” Mauldin said. “Tate has been in our home. Ray Crawford, a 79 year-old Republican who is a Hattiesburg political institution and helped him with his first campaign, said Ray “Two Bits”. “I know him so I know better that Bill Waller would be a better governor,” said Waller. However, he acknowledged in the Mississippi Today interview many of Reeves strengths and how they affect his campaign’s strategy. Waller responded quickly to a question about Reeves’ problems, saying “The Coast.” This prompted a lengthy conversation about the powerful machine Reeves built in this crucial area of the state. Based on 2016 presidential election turnout, around 85,000 Republican voters reside in the three Gulf Coast county. The three Coast counties represented 16 percent of the total GOP primary turnout in 2015. This makes them a key battleground for any Republican who wishes to run for governor. As he prepares for the 2019 gubernatorial elections, Reeves spent many years building partnerships and volunteer infrastructure along the Coast. Reeves’ campaign signs line Coast roads. Erick Erickson, a national conservative pundit, tweeted last week that “Driving through South Mississippi wow the @tatereeves signage are everywhere.” There are many farmers with many signs. Reeves also ran statewide four more times. This gave Coast voters the opportunity to know the name of the lieutenant governor. Waller ran in Mississippi’s central district for the Mississippi Supreme Court, which doesn’t include the Gulf Coast counties. Reeves has $6.3million to spend and has been building his political machine along the Coast for the past few years. Waller, with just over $500,000, has only been running for governor’s office for four months. Waller stated, “You have the old families on Coast with whom Tate has very systematically built relationships.” He is a master at securing support from all sources. He has those old-line, top families. Waller said, “But that doesn’t mean that I don’t possess some, but it does not mean I don’t own his base.” Talking to someone who has been down there for a while or a veteran of the military will tell you that they have seen Tate’s name. It’s also what Waller calls a “quiet endorsement” of his candidacy. Waller said that he has heard from many people in the state that they feel obliged to publicly support Reeves but won’t vote for him. Waller hesitated when asked if he was frustrated by this. Waller said, “My entry into the race was late.” Waller stated that no one in their right mind could do this in six to seven months. Waller said that there were many people who would have supported him, but they didn’t know that you were running in the race. The last stop was the Sumrall Lamar County Republican Party dinner. The event began at 6:30 p.m., 15 and a quarter hours after Waller’s 3 a.m. alarm. Waller took out his iPad to do some research while on the way to the event. He jotted down notes on a notepad and said, “Looks like Lamar County does have two roads that are paved.” Waller delivered a rousing five minute speech inside the Midway Community Center. He seemed just as energized at the Hardee’s that morning at 5:30. He used the numbers to justify the need to repair the state’s crumbling infrastructure, and he also listed the bridge and road information he had taken with him. He spoke about how state hospitals, including Collins, could benefit from “Medicaid Reform.” He also discussed his earlier visit to the Covington County Superintendent and proposed raising teacher salaries in public schools every year until the state’s average meets that of the Southeastern. A campaign staffer suggested that his speech was his best. Waller smiled. Waller said, “It felt great.” It seemed that they were able to respond well. “But Lord knows, there’s still a lot to do.” Contributing: Bobby Harrison