RIDGELAND — On Aug. 3 1971, there were seven persons on the ballot for governor in Mississippi’s first Democratic primary. Lt. Gov. Charles Sullivan, a longtime Mississippi politician, was heavily favored to win. Former Hinds County District Attorney Bill Waller was considered his chief rival. Segregationist and onetime country singer Jimmy Swan was expected to draw significantly from Mississippi's old “redneck” faction formerly led by Theodore Bilbo but not challenge for a place in the run-off.
When the vote was counted, Sullivan and Waller topped the field with 39% and 30% respectively. Swan finished with 17% of the vote and mercifully disappeared from state politics. The remaining four polled in the single digits.
Sullivan’s vote total was seen as a predictor of victory in the coming runoff. Waller instead captured 54.3% of the votes on Aug. 24 and faced independent Charles Evers the following November. Many 18-to-20-year-old voters, who were quickly registered to vote upon ratification of the 26th Amendment the previous month, voiced their feelings that Sullivan looked to be nothing more than four more years of John Bell Williams.
Bill Waller Jr., seeking to become only the second son of a Mississippi governor to also be elected governor, may be perched to repeat his father’s history. Tate Reeves looked strong in the Aug. 6 Republican primary, winning 49% of the vote. Waller polled 33% and Robert Foster collected 18%. While gaining only one-third of the votes cast may not seem impressive, Waller did force a runoff. If he can successfully court Foster’s voters, and convince some of Reeves’ first-primary supporters to switch allegiance, he could pull off the upset.
The younger Waller has an impressive resumé. He is the former chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court and a brigadier general in the Mississippi National Guard. His position in the Guard alone should appeal to those voters who believe in a strong defense. Rural residents should also be attracted to his commitment to improving roads and bridges. Attracting better-paying jobs across Mississippi will not happen without significant infrastructure improvements. His campaign slogan “Make Mississippi Roads Great Again” should become a reality.
Waller is lacking in visibility and aggression as a candidate. He needs to cease being the brigadier general and the Supreme Court justice. Instead he must become a true politician, one who will vigorously highlight the differences between himself and his opponent.
Reeves has promised to fight for Mississippians to be able to advertise their trust in God on their car tags. This ploy is reminiscent of the “no liquor in the Governor’s Mansion” pledge that candidates took 50 years ago to secure the church vote. Waller must campaign uncompromisingly on concrete solutions to Mississippi’s challenges. The first should be good roads and a strong infrastructure.
• Vincent J. Venturini is the retired associate provost at Mississippi Valley State University. He lives in Ridgeland.