Republican candidates for district and statewide office debated the issues at Southwest Mississippi Community College Friday night.

Appearing at the debate sponsored by the Southwest Mississippi Community College Republicans and Lincoln County Republican Women were gubernatorial candidates Bill Waller Jr. and Robert Foster, secretary of state candidate Michael Watson, attorney general candidates Mark Baker and Andy Taggart and District Attorney candidate Joey Norton.

David Hughes of SuperTalk Mississippi, Byron Brown of WJTV 12, and Courtney Carter of Y’all Politics served as moderators.  

Waller and Foster debated first, with two-term Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves , the odds-on favorite in the race, absent, saying in a statement that he “regrets to miss the event but is looking forward to the televised debate.”

Waller compared the issues in the campaign to the human body.

“We have to start with the head,” he said, referring to education. “... We are on the border of crisis in our education. We need to look at ways to encourage teachers such as debt repayment plans.”

As for health care and failing rural hospitals, “we then have to improve the heart,” he said. “And finally we have the arteries which are the roads and bridges.”

“I want to lead to have the most effective government in the state and will be responsive to all citizens.”

Foster advocated more support for career and technical education.

“We need to put more freedom in education,” he said, adding he believes children as young as eighth-graders should be able to take vocational courses in order to help the state and its schools get “back on track.”

Unlike Reeves, who has staunchly opposed raising Mississippi’s fuel tax, which hasn’t risen since 1987, both Waller and Foster said they believe that raising the tax on gas would help improve the budget for maintaining roads and bridges.

Waller suggested that 20 cents per gallon would be a reasonable amount to fix the state’s $4 billion worth of failing roads and bridges.

Foster agreed: “Even the drug dealer on the street corner would be paying the gas tax.”

Foster, a freshman lawmaker in his 30s who runs a DeSoto County farm, said he believes his perspectives set him apart, and if elected he says that he will “push back on abortion and shut down the last remaining abortion clinic in the state.”

“We have some of the hardest working people in the nation,” he said. “I will put God first and the people in everything that I do.”

Watson, a state senator from Pascagoula, took part in the debate but his primary opponent, Southern district Public Service Commissioner Sam Britton, did not, sending in a statement that he is “looking forward to meeting all of you soon” and plans to be an ally to President Donald Trump.

Watson said that being a senator sets him apart from other candidates because it gives him established relationships and a proven track record of being a conservative.

 “I don’t have to start over. I have relationships that will be viable already,” he said.

AG candidate Taggart said he wants to fight against illicit drugs and human trafficking. He also wants to listen to the views of the people and propose another vote to change the state flag.

Baker said that “the business litigation is getting out of hand,”  slamming incumbent Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democratic candidate for governor, for steering numerous lawsuits to private attorneys.

Norton, the only Republican candidate running for district attorney, said the office needs to get “tough” on crime.

“We are dealing with a different kind of criminal than years ago,” he said.

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