JACKSON — In 2009, in the midst of the so-called Great Recession as Gov. Haley Barbour was making multiple budget reductions to deal with an unprecedented drop in state revenue collections, Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. put his foot down and said no additional cuts could be made to the judiciary.
Waller sent a letter to the Republican governor saying that as a co-equal branch of government, the judiciary had to have enough funding to carry out its constitutionally mandated function.
Barbour said OK.
The episode was surprising for two reasons.
First of all, as head of the state’s judiciary, Waller was known as a person who did not rock the boat or cause conflict with the state’s political leadership.
And secondly, as governor, Barbour was known for not backing down — being willing to cause conflict to get his way. Based on the governor’s reaction, it is safe to assume Barbour believed Waller had made a firm argument.
In addition, the fact that Waller was not known as one to rock the boat most likely helped his argument in Barbour’s eyes.
Those amiable traits, though endearing and advantageous for being able to work with others, might be a hindrance in this year’s gubernatorial election. Time will tell. Waller might pull the biggest political upset in recent Mississippi history and win Tuesday’s Republican runoff for governor against Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. But if he doesn’t, it might be a case of a missed opportunity.
Since becoming a late entry into this year’s governor’s election in February, Waller has tried to make the argument that Mississippi is lagging behind surrounding states and the nation and that changes in policies are needed.
That argument has gotten Waller to a Republican primary runoff. Waller already has exceeded the expectations of many by advancing to a runoff against the heavily funded Reeves, who has outspent Waller $6.2 million to $1.4 million, based on the latest campaign finance reports.
While Waller has provided contrasts in terms of policy positions, he has been unwilling to say in a direct manner that Tate Reeves bears a significant share of the responsibility for any problems as one of the state’s primary policymakers as lieutenant governor for the past eight years.
Perhaps, Waller is reluctant to make that argument because if he does, he also would be casting blame with popular outgoing Gov. Phil Bryant — another of the state’s key policymaker.
But more likely, to do so just is not in Waller’s DNA. He is in a sense campaigning as “the happy warrior,” talking about what he would do to try to fix problems, but unwilling to cast blame.
Waller faces an uphill battle on Tuesday. Reeves garnered nearly 49 percent of the vote on Aug. 6, barely missing the majority needed to avoid a runoff. But runoffs are tricky. Normally fewer people return to the polls, so Waller has some reason for optimism and Reeves has at least a little reason to worry.
If Waller comes up just a little short, he might be second guessing himself. But on the other hand, he might be proud of and at peace with the campaign he ran.
• Bobby Harrison is the senior Capitol reporter for Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization based in Jackson.