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Facing GOP Runoff With Mike Ezell, Steven Palazzo Agrees to First Debate in 12 Years

Side by side photo of two white male politicians
Jackson County Sheriff Mike Ezell is challenging U.S. House Rep. Steven Palazzo in Mississippi’s 4th Congressional District GOP runoff on June 28, 2022. Palazzo agreed to debate him on Friday, June 24, 2022. It will be the first time in 12 years that the incumbent has debated an opponent. Photos courtesy Mike Ezell Campaign / AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

Incumbent Republican U.S. House Rep. Steven Palazzo will debate an opponent for the first time since he won the seat 12 years ago as he struggles to hold onto his seat in Mississippi’s 4th Congressional District. The South Mississippi congressman will debate GOP primary runoff opponent Mike Ezell on Friday.

“We’re having a debate this Friday, June 24 at 7:00 p.m. on WLOX-CBS,” the Ezell campaign announced in a tweet. “Congressman Palazzo has skipped 4 debates so far and he’s finally agreed to debate. I hope everyone will watch!”

Palazzo last debated an opponent when he ran against incumbent Democratic U.S. House Rep. Gene Taylor in 2010. Since winning the seat, though, the current Republican incumbent has ignored or refused all debate invites with Democratic, Republican and third party challengers alike. Even in 2010, Palazzo skipped an AARP-hosted forum in Hattiesburg, leaving Taylor to debate Libertarian candidate Tim Hampton next to a third, empty podium.

Palazzo won 32% of the vote in this year’s Republican primary on June 7, while Ezell, who is the sheriff of Jackson County, placed second with 25%. Since none of the six Republicans who ran won over 50% of the vote, that required the top-two candidates to compete in next week’s runoff. The primary marked the first time that a Republican challenger has forced Palazzo into a runoff since he entered office in January 2011.

Since forcing Palazzo into a runoff, the Jackson County sheriff has earned endorsements from all other former Republican candidates who ran against Palazzo in this year’s primary, including: Mississippi Sen. Brice Wiggins; Carl Boyanton; Raymond Brooks; and Kidron Peterson.

‘They’re Going To See Me More’

Palazzo’s long track record of skipping debates and refusing to hold in-person town hall meetings with constituents in his district has earned him the nickname “No Show Palazzo” among some Republican and Democratic critics in South Mississippi. But after his poor primary performance, the incumbent issued his own call for a one-on-one debate with Ezell.

“It’s an honor to serve south Mississippi, and it’s something I do not take for granted. I challenge Mike Ezell to a debate to be held under mutually agreeable terms before June 28,” Y’all Politics reported Palazzo saying on June 9. “Voters deserve to hear directly from both candidates and compare our records before the runoff.”

“That wasn’t a turnout vote against me,” said Rep. Steven Palazzo. “That was just low turnout and people effectively garnered certain support in certain areas.” Photo courtesy Rep. Steven Palazzo

Both candidates say they consider themselves “pro-life” and anti-abortion, that they want to “support law enforcement” and that they want tougher immigration policies. Throughout the primary, Palazzo’s opponent focused on his reputation as a “no-show” (though he has made several public appearances in his district since failing to win renomination outright in this month’s primary). 

Ezell and other opponents have also raised questions about Palazzo’s ethics. Over the past year, he has fought accusations of wrongdoing amid an ongoing congressional ethics probe. In March 2021, a non-partisan congressional ethics board said it found “substantial evidence” that the embattled congressman may have repeatedly violated federal law, including by misusing campaign funds and using his office for campaign purposes and to do favors for a family member. He denies the allegations.

In an interview with SuperTalk’s Paul Gallo on June 20, Palazzo pushed back against the absent congressman caricature, pointing out that he holds telephone town hall events that constituents can call into and, if selected, ask a question.

“I show up for Mississippi, I deliver for Mississippi and Mississippians aren’t dumb. My opponents think South Mississippians are dumb, but they’re not,” Palazzo told the radio host. “They know I’m working hard for them, and they also know I can’t be everywhere in the district all the time because two-to-three weeks out of the month they hired me to go to Washington, D.C., to fight the liberal, secular agenda.”

He said his team was “fixing” the perception that he is absent and that it was the result of “desperate opponents manufacturing lies people are buying into.”

“People want to see me more, and they’re going to see me, they’re going to see me to the point where they’re tired of seeing me and they’re going to know I’m there,” Palazzo said.

‘That Wasn’t A Turnout Vote Against Me’

Over the course of his tenure, constituents across the political spectrum have organized their own town hall gatherings of their own and invited him to join to answer questions. He did not show up for a Tea Party-organized town hall event outside his Hattiesburg campaign office in 2013 nor a progressive-oriented one in the same place in 2017, for example.

The six-term congressman told Gallo that he did not believe his poor showing in the June 7 runoff was a referendum on his leadership.

“People just didn’t turn out and vote,” he said. “That wasn’t a turnout vote against me. That was just low turnout and people effectively garnered certain support in certain areas.”

‘A Career County Employee’

Since the primary, Palazzo has criticized Ezell’s leadership in Jackson County, saying that he has “he has been a career county employee all of his life” who lacks experience in legislative or federal politics. The sheriff fired back, calling him a “career politician.”

“Correction, Congressman: I’ve been a Law Enforcement Officer for 42 years & Sheriff of Jackson County for the last 7 years,” Ezell tweeted yesterday. “I’ve been tackling corruption and government wrongdoing since you were born—that’s something you wouldn’t happen to know about, would you?

a photo of Mike Ezell
“I’ve been tackling corruption and government wrongdoing since you were born—that’s something you wouldn’t happen to know about, would you?,” Jackson County Sheriff Mike Ezell said after Rep. Steven Palazzo dismissed him as a “career county employee.” Photo courtesy Ezell campaign

“You have the right to disrespect thousands of Law Enforcement Officers, but I’ll be sure to call you out every time you refer to our brave men and women as just ‘County Employees’. Shame on you.”

In an interview with Y’all Politics on June 17, Ezell also responded to Palazzo’s accusation that he is not sufficiently pro-2nd Amendment after the incumbent criticized his stance against allowing people to openly carry guns in courthouses.

“For him to say that I’m not a 2nd Amendment guy, my number one priority is to protect the citizens in this county,” the sheriff said. “These claims are just reaching out to try to make some sort of political point. Courthouses are very dangerous at times when there are divorces and things like that going on and the sheriff’s deputies are to protect those folks. I’m just very cautious about these kinds of things, but I’m a full supporter.”

Vote Tuesday, June 28

The two GOP candidates will debate on Friday, June 24, 2022, which South Mississippi residents will be able to watch on WLOX, an ABC and CBS affiliate. Then, voters will choose between Palazzo and Ezell in the Tuesday, June 28, 2022 primary runoffs.

Voters in the 4th Congressional District are eligible to cast a ballot if they registered by May 31 and did not vote in the June 7 Democratic primary. There is no party registration in Mississippi and all voters who did not participate in the June 7 Democratic Primary are eligible to vote in the GOP primary runoff even if they did not vote in the June 7 primary.

When they arrive at the polls on June 28, voters must bring an acceptable form of photo identification, such as a driver’s license, state-issued photo ID, U.S. passport, government employee ID card, student ID from a state university or college, firearms license, tribal ID or a Mississippi Voter Identification Card. Information on how residents can obtain a free voter identification card from their local circuit clerk’s office is available here.

Secretary of State Michael Watson has urged voters to verify their vote registration is active by checking online at this link. More information on voting is available on the Secretary of State’s FAQ section and Voter Information Guide.

The ultimate GOP nominee will face former Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree, who won the June 7 Democratic primary outright, and Libertarian Party candidate Alden Johnson in the November general election.

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