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Black Candidate Says Mississippi Dems Barred Him From Governor Primary to Help Presley

Closeup of Bob Hickingbottom, a Constitution Party candidate for governor, wearing a red campaign hat
Bob Hickingbottom, who filed to run for governor in the August 2023 Mississippi Democratic Party primary, is alleging that party leaders barred him from running “to make sure that Brandon Presley doesn’t have any competition, particularly from Black candidates.” Hickingbottom is seen here at the Neshoba County Fair in 2019, when he ran on the Constitution Party platform. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Bob Hickingbottom is accusing the Mississippi Democratic Party of preventing him and another Black candidate, Gregory Wash, from running in the primary for governor after party leaders declined to vote against certifying either man’s candidacy.

That decision leaves Brandon Presley, a white public service commissioner from Mississippi’s northern district, as the only Democratic candidate on the ballot for governor in the August 2023 primaries.

In an interview with the Mississippi Free Press on Tuesday, Hickingbottom accused Democratic leaders of wanting “to make sure that Brandon Presley doesn’t have any competition, particularly from Black candidates.” Presley, who was not part of the decision-making process that barred Hickingbottom and Wash from the primaries, said he had no comment for this story.

When the Mississippi Democratic Executive Committee met on Feb. 16, the Daily Journal reported that officials said that, despite filing their qualifying papers before the Feb. 1 deadline, Hickingbottom and Wash did not meet the requirements for entry into the primary.

Hickingbottom’s Facebook says he has “25 years of successful experience as a political operative and campaign strategist.” This reporter could not find contact information for Wash, but in a 2019 campaign ad, he described himself as a “movie star.”

Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley speaking
Brandon Presley will be the only candidate on the Democratic ballot for the August 2023 primaries for governor after party officials barred two other challengers from running on Feb. 16, 2023. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

The party cited the fact that neither man has filed a statement of economic interest with the Mississippi Ethics Commission, and also failed to do so when they ran campaigns in 2019. However, Magnolia Tribune reported on Feb. 19 that 56 other Democratic candidates, including five running for statewide offices and 51 running for legislative seats, have not filed the statements. The party nevertheless certified their candidacies.

Mississippi election law says candidates must file a statement of economic interest “within fifteen (15) days after the deadline for qualification for that public office,” or by Feb. 15 for the current primaries. Asked about the law, an official at the Mississippi secretary of state’s office directed this reporter to contact the Mississippi Ethics Commission.

Ethics Commission, Secretary of State Weigh In

In an interview Wednesday morning, Mississippi Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Hood told the Mississippi Free Press that the law does not require candidates to be disqualified for failing to submit a statement of economic interest.

“Nothing in the ethics law about candidate qualifications would prohibit someone from taking office if they don’t file a statement of economic interest but do get elected,” Hood said, speaking generally and not directly about the immediate situation. “The only penalties in the ethics law regarding a statement of economic interest are fines for late filing, and ultimately there can be a misdemeanor charge for refusing to file, but it’s still just a fine.”

“Nothing in the ethics law about candidate qualifications would prohibit someone from taking office if they don’t file a statement of economic interest but do get elected,” Mississippi Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Hood told the Mississippi Free Press on Feb. 21, 2023. File photo by Nick Judin

Hood confirmed that the commission has not fined either Bob Hickingbottom or Gregory Wash. The law says that candidates can face fines of up to $50 per day up to $1,000 only after receiving a notice of delinquency from the Mississippi Ethics Commission and continuing to fail to file the statement within 15 days of receipt. In a phone interview Friday, Hickingbottom said he has never received a notice of delinquency from the commission for his past campaign or the current one.

The Mississippi secretary of state’s office weighed in with a statement on Tuesday.

“The Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office has never used the Statement of Economic Interest as part of its process in qualifying candidates. Statutes pertaining to the penalties for failure to submit a Statement of Economic Interest do not provide for disqualification as a penalty,” the statement said.

But the office noted that, after a candidate files for election as a partisan candidate, “the respective party executive committee will determine whether the qualifications for those seeking political party nominations for the primary elections while the appropriate election commission will review the qualifications of those who have obtained the political party nomination or have qualified as an independent for the general election.”

Hickingbottom Threatens Lawsuit

Since Monday, the Mississippi Free Press repeatedly asked the Mississippi Democratic Party for comment. Democratic Party Executive Director Andre Wagner told the Mississippi Free Press on Tuesday that he believed the party had “no comment at this time,” but said the chairman, Tyree Irving, may agree to an interview on Wednesday. By press time, though, the party had not arranged for that interview despite multiple follow-up requests.

In a written statement to the Mississippi Free Press on Tuesday, Bob Hickingbottom said “it’s unfair that they disqualified me and another African-American for not filing a report that 56 other Democrats haven’t filed either. … My party either has to qualify us all or none of us,” he added.

Party leaders Wagner and Irving are both Black.

Hickingbottom said on Tuesday he plans to file a complaint challenging the decision unless the party reverses course. “If this does not work, I will consider filing a civil rights lawsuit against the Mississippi Democrat Party,” he added. He reiterated those plans in an interview on Friday, but when asked to clarify, said it would be up to lawyers to decide whether he will file a lawsuit in court or a complaint with the ethics commission.

‘I Am My Own Man’

In the statement Hickingbottom sent the Mississippi Free Press on Tuesday, Bob Hickingbottom brought up Republican Sen. Chris McDaniel’s campaign challenging incumbent Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, even though this reporter had not asked him about that race.

“The only Republican I ever support is Delbert Hosemann because everybody knows Delbert is a real Democrat,” Hickingbottom said in his statement, echoing rhetoric McDaniel’s own campaign has used insinuating that Hosemann is not a real Republican. “Delbert has been great for Democrats, the best thing the Democrats have going for us. Delbert’s already been reaching out to the black community asking Democrats to cross over to the Republican Primary to help him beat McDaniel.

“But I think that would be a mistake. I need African-American voters to vote for me once I am placed back on the ballot. That way I can beat Brandon Presley, and we can have real representation.”

Senator Chris McDaniel announces his run for Lt. Gov.
Mississippi Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, told the Mississippi Free Press that he has had no contact with Bob Hickingbottom.

After sharing his statement with the Mississippi Free Press on Tuesday, Hickingbottom also posted it on Facebook, where it drew the attention of Laurel Leader-Call publisher Jim Cegielski. The Jones County newspaper’s publisher seized on the post in a pro-McDaniel column on Friday, citing it as evidence that Hosemann “is a Democrat who, just as Mr. Hickingbottom points out, has only run as a Republican so that he could get elected.”

Several sources who did not wish to speak on the record told the Mississippi Free Press that some Democratic officials believe Hickingbottom entered the Democratic primary to ensure Presley has an opponent in hopes of discouraging Democratic voters from crossing over and voting against McDaniel in the GOP primary.

When this reporter called Hickingbottom back Friday to ask him about the rumors that he is trying to help McDaniel, he categorically denied it.

“I don’t even know McDaniel,” he said. “I don’t have no knowledge of Chris McDaniel. None, none whatsoever. That’s a baldfaced lie. … I’m my own man.” When reached for comment Friday, McDaniel also said he has not been in contact with Hickingbottom, but that he is following the story.

In Tuesday’s statement, Hickingbottom said he is “a lifelong Democrat,” even though he ran for governor on the Constitution Party platform in 2019. He received just 0.30% of the vote in the general election that year as Republican Tate Reeves defeated Democrat Jim Hood by a 52%-47% margin.

Hickingbottom told the Mississippi Free Press on Friday that he decided to run as a Constitution Party candidate in 2019 because he “got in late” and that he has always “had a lot of trouble” with Democratic leaders like U.S. House Rep. Bennie Thompson, who represents Mississippi’s 2nd Congressional District.

“I figured they would fight me, so I took the route to run on the Constitution Party,” he said. “But many people are basically pulling for me and I need all the prayers.”

Editor’s Note: The Mississippi Free Press is currently appealing a Mississippi Ethics Commission determination that the Legislature is not a “public body” under the state’s Open Meetings Act law. This does not affect our coverage of this story.

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