With Sen. Bob Dearing retiring, four Republicans and one Democrat are competing to fill his District 37 seat, which stretches across Adams, Franklin, Amite and Pike counties.
Republicans Milt Burris, Morgan Halford Poore, Melanie Sojourner and Kevin Wells will go head to head in the Aug. 6 Republican primary. The party nominee will face Democrat William Godfrey in the Nov. 5 general election.
Here’s a look at the Republican contenders:
Burris, 48, of Smithdale owns Glass Builders and runs a skeet shooting range on the side.
“I’ve thought about this for a long time, and instead of being an armchair quarterback, I want to put some skin in the game, make Southwest Mississippi a better place and prosperous,” he said.
He sees the population declining, industry leaving the area and schools struggling.
“I’m a business owner. Every day I’m trying to create a job. I’m trying to put somebody to work. I’m trying to grow a business. I’m trying to grow the economy,” Burris said.
Burris said his biggest concern is helping the area have a better educated workforce, since failing school districts are not appealing to prospective industry.
“A viable educated workforce would be No. 1 in attracting an industry,” he said.
Some people have told him that’s a lost cause, but Burris counters, “There’s nothing that’s a lost cause.”
“Why do we have the highest paid state superintendent, which I think should be a performance-based job?” he said.
He also wants to four-lane more highways, another key to attracting industry.
“Look at (Highway) 24,” he said. “They said we didn’t have the money to do it when they had already bought the land. I literally think the government should be run like a business. You should have everything planned out and ready to go before you pull a trigger.”
Better roads and schools will bring jobs and retain population, he said.
Burris said he will put constituents’ needs over that of the Republican Party if it comes to that.
“I won’t do anything that will compromise my Christian beliefs, and I’m going to do what’s best for Southwest Mississippi, not what’s best for somebody else,” he said.
Asked for his opinion on President Trump, Burris said, “His performance has been great and wonderful. If he would just stay off Twitter. I would rather wonder what he’s thinking on Twitter than know what he’s thinking on Twitter.”
Burris is a member of the McComb Rotary Club and is a Paul Harris Fellow. He was an assistant Scoutmaster for 10 years. He hosts charity events at his skeet range, Pine Ridge Shooting Center, such as “Shooting for Hope,” which benefits children with serious medical conditions whose families are facing financial need.
“In four years we’ve raised over 45 grand, giving directly back to this community,” Burris said.
The Rotary Club motto is “service above self,” and Burris takes that seriously.
“If I can help in any way in this community to make it better, whatever, that’s what I’m for,” he said.
Morgan Halford Poore
Poore, 30, is a Meadville attorney with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, a law degree from Ole Miss and post-graduate policy studies from Mississippi State University.
After law school she came home to work with father, Bill Halford, at the law office. Her brother Will is an attorney, and her mother, Debbra Halford, is a chancery court judge.
“I got very involved in a lot of groups — economic development boards, a lot of different civic activities in the community, just got very interested in different aspects in the community, and so when I heard that Mr. Bob Dearing was not running again, I thought about it and I prayed about it a lot and it just made sense that this is the next natural progression for what I want to do to help southwest Mississippi,” Poore said.
She said her educational background, her experience in her law practice and the community have prepared her to be an effective voice.
“Even though I’m a lot younger than other candidates or typical candidates, I have a good overview of different aspects of what we need brought back to southwest Mississippi.”
She said the state needs someone who can work effectively with other leaders to accomplish things — someone who can listen, understand and research issues, all of which she does as an attorney.
If elected, she wants to tackle infrastructure, education and promotion of Southwest Mississippi’s outdoor resources.
By infrastructure she means utilities, transportation and communication. In education, she wants to improve academic and vocational training along with workforce development.
“We’re one of the most beautiful areas of the state and we offer a lot in terms of natural resources that other parts of the state don’t, and we’ve got to learn how to utilize that,” she said, citing plans by the Scenic Rivers Development Alliance to bring development to Okhissa Lake.
“I hope to see that become a reality,” she said.
“We need to promote Southwest Mississippi, make people want to come to Southwest Mississippi to visit, live, to work,” Poore said. “We’ve got to provide a place where people can come back home to work and live. Not everybody is going to go to a four-year college and get a bachelor’s degree or get a professional degree. That’s fine. What we as a community have to do is starting from a younger age teach our children that there are other options available.”
As for Trump, “He is our president and I support the president,” she said.
“As a representative of this district, what my job will be is to listen to what the constituents want, listen to what the people want, analyze the situation, weigh the factors, make a decision for what I think is best and best represents the district,” Poore said.
“I feel like I’m young enough that I have the energy to tackle the difficult tasks that stand before us. Also, I have the enthusiasm this job needs.”
Sojourner, 51, of the Kingston community in southeast Adams County, is seeking a second term as District 37 senator. She unseated Dearing in 2012, only to have him defeat her in the next election by a mere 50 votes.
“I didn’t lose the desire to want to make Southwest Mississippi better, stronger and more viable for all of our kids,” Sojourner said.
She said her family has been on the same farm since 1814. She worked for state and national cattlemen’s associations, as an entrepreneur, for the Mississippi State University Extension Service and Mississippi Farm Bureau before deciding to run against Dearing.
She said the decisive issue was his support for a bill that allowed the state to take private land for economic development using eminent domain, which she vigorously opposed.
Among her accomplishments while senator was helping oil companies get a tax break for exploring the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale formation while guaranteeing counties get reimbursement for infrastructure damage.
She decided to run this time after hearing requests from constituents, she said. If elected, she will start out with seniority from her past term, which can help with committee and conference appointments.
“We can start back with somebody whose record is proven,” Sojourner said.
She said some Republicans have moved to the middle politically, but not her.
“I’m a conservative. I’m a true conservative,” said Sojourner.
As such, she opposes tax increases, wasteful spending and greater regulations.
Sojourner said she supports President Trump’s agenda “100 percent.”
“I think the president is doing a great job. I support him completely,” she said. “I will fight for President Trump’s agenda here in Jackson.”
Sojourner said voters have a choice between greater government control and more spending, or allowing businesses and individuals more freedom.
“I believe in the people. I believe the greatest asset we have is to turn people loose,” she said.
If elected, she wants to get “our fiscal house in order, making sure our state is on sound financial footing.”
She wants to make changes in the education system, such as reducing the “heavy hand” of state and federal control, channeling more money to the classroom and less to administration.
“All we’re doing is paperwork to teach to the test and ignoring the students’ needs,” Sojourner said.
She also wants to address infrastructure, getting more support to local governments with their needs via Internet taxes and a state lottery.
“I’m not a fan of supporting every new splash pool, gymnasium, walking trail, museums,” she said.
She said such projects are fine, but she wants to address more vital needs first, like education, infrastructure and public safety.
Wells, 53, of the Mars Hill community in Amite County, is a self-employed real estate developer making his first run for political office.
“Being self-employed for 33 years of my life and always being self-employed and sitting on the sidelines, and watching our political climate change rapidly — instead of sitting around and talking about it, I decided I wanted to get involved and fix what’s broken by liberal government,” Wells said. “And I had the time to do it.”
He said he’s had five business start-ups that were “100 percent success” with “zero failures.”
There are two issues in particular he would like to tackle if elected — taxes and mineral rights.
“I would like to abolish our income tax, lean more on a sales tax income,” Wells said. “That way we give our people first choice in how they want to spend their money.”
He would cut the state sales tax on groceries “so the increase doesn’t hurt our working poor,” he said.
Wells has not calculated what the sales tax would be if Mississippi had no income tax, but noted that other states — Florida, Texas and Tennessee — have been “very successful” in doing away with a state income tax.
On mineral rights, Wells wants to “create a path” where ownership could go to the landowner. “Other states have a path by which if someone buys a piece of property and there’s no exploration or production, mineral rights revert to the landowner,” he said. “Our system is once purchased, always purchased.”
He said an oil company wanting to explore a 10,000-acre section only has to lease 40 percent of the minerals, yet “60 percent of our mineral owners cannot even be found.”
Non-residents own a substantial amount of mineral rights, he said. As a result, an oil boom doesn’t benefit locally “because the money doesn’t stay here,” he said.
“My plan was, once we find a mineral owner that does not own land, they would pay $1 per acre each year to retain their minerals. If they don’t pay them (for three years), they’ll revert back to the landowner.”
That $1 per acre could mean a lot for county governments, he said.
If he ever finds himself in conflict with the Republican party over an issue, he said he will put the needs of the voters first.
“Every decision that I ever make will always be based on what is in the best interest of the people. It’s not going to be based on party lines,” he said.
“I am in line with Donald Trump, but that doesn’t mean you agree with everything he does. What’s going to be in the best interest of the state of Mississippi is what matters, period,” Wells said.
“I’m also signed on for term limits. I am a pro-life supporter. I’m a pro gun-rights advocate. I’m pro landowner. I’m trying to get the mineral rights back to the landowner.”