The Mississippi Democratic Party must allow Bob Hickingbottom to challenge Brandon Presley for the party’s nomination for governor in the August primaries, a state judge ruled on May 26.
The party, which cited Hickingbottom’s failure to file a statement of economic interest when its executive committee declined to certify his candidacy in February, is appealing the ruling to the Mississippi Supreme Court. The state’s high court issued an order Monday requiring the party to file its appeal by 1 p.m. Tuesday.
Mississippi Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Hood told the Mississippi Free Press in February that state law does not require candidates to be disqualified for failing to submit a statement of economic interest, though they can face a financial penalty for not doing so.
In his ruling, Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Forrest A. Johnson noted that Hickingbottom “is thirty years of age or older, has been a citizen of the United States for more than twenty years, and has resided in the State of Mississippi for more than five years,” meaning he meets the requirements to run under the Mississippi Constitution.
“There is a difference between qualifications for governor as set out in Article 5 of the Mississippi Constitution and penalties for failure to file an economic statement of interest in Section 23-15-811 of the Mississippi Code,” he wrote. “Qualifications are the core, personal eligibility requirements set out by the Mississippi Constitution. Either you are or you are not. The penalties of Section 23-15-811 are punishment for failure to take action required by law, which include being guilty of a misdemeanor crime, being barred from certification if nominated, and no salary if elected to office.
“The court concludes that a candidate can’t be disqualified from candidacy due to violations of Section 23-15-811, only subjected to enforcement of the penalties if he or she wins,” the judge continued, writing that Hickingbottom’s disqualification “was invalid on its face because it did not call into question any ‘qualifications’ of Article 5 of the Mississippi Constitution.”
‘Deficient In Due Process’
Hickingbottom’s May 5 complaint included a copy of an email he received from Mississippi Democratic Party Executive Director Andre J. Wagner on Feb. 17, informing him that the party’s executive committee voted not to certify his candidacy.
“Sadly, you did not meet the statutory requirements; should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to give us a call,” the party’s executive director wrote at the time, without elaborating on why Hickingbottom failed to meet the requirements.
The Mississippi Democratic Party told the court in a May 8 filing that “Mr. Jim Newman timely filed with the State Executive Committee his petition contesting Mr. Hickingbottom’s qualifications,” in which he argued that “Mr. Hickingbottom’s violations of campaign finance law and Ethics Law could be altogether damaging to the reputation of the Democratic Party should he be placed on the ballot.”
The party’s filing said Hickingbottom attended a Feb. 16 Zoom meeting with the Mississippi Democratic Party Executive Committee over Newman’s contest to his candidacy, but that the candidate “failed to respond when Chairman (Tyree) Irving called for Hickingbottom to put forth evidence or testimony in support of his qualifications and/or in rebuttal to Mr. Newman’s contest.”
In his order on May 26, the judge cited the email as “deficient in due process, invalid and improper” because it “did not set out any specific Article 5 qualifications.”
‘More Democracy Is Better Than Less Democracy’
On May 8, the Mississippi Democratic Party asked the judge to throw out Bob Hickingbottom’s challenge, saying it was “untimely” because the candidate waited 77 days after the non-certification decision before filing.
The judge called it a “valid question” in his order but erred against the timeliness argument. While the “right to run for elected office … has not been fully recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court as a fundamental right” like the right to vote, Johnson wrote, it “does implicate the right to vote because it affects not just the candidate, but also the voter’s choice of candidates to vote for.”
“We are a constitutional democracy in this nation. Voting is a fundamental pillar of our democracy,” he wrote. “The right of citizens to run for elected office, while not yet recognized on the same level as voting itself, is at least a quasi-fundamental pillar of our democracy. More democracy is better than less democracy. In summary, the plaintiff’s right of ballot access, in this case, prevails over his delay in seeking relief from this court.”
If the party succeeds on appeal, that would leave Brandon Presley, a white public service commissioner for Mississippi’s northern district, as the de facto nominee. Republicans have criticized the Democrats’ earlier decision not to certify Hickingbottom, noting that he is Black.
In a tweet on May 26 that included a story from Magnolia Tribune, the Mississippi Republican Party claimed that “Brandon Presley and his allies in the Democratic Party corruptly pushed his African American opponent off the ballot.”
“Why did Brandon Presley work so hard to prevent an African American candidate from accessing the ballot?” the Mississippi GOP’s tweet said. Presley was not part of the committee that decided on Hickingbottom’s certification. Tyree Irving and Andre Wagner, who are on the committee, are both Black.
In February, sources who did not wish to be named told the Mississippi Free Press that Democratic officials believed Hickingbottom entered the Democratic primary to ensure Presley would have an opponent in hopes of discouraging Democratic voters from crossing over and voting in the GOP primaries.
Hickingbottom denied that accusation in an interview with the Mississippi Free Press at the time, calling it “a baldfaced lie.”
“I’m my own man,” he said.
The Democratic and Republican primaries for statewide and state legislative offices will be held on Aug. 8, 2023.