|By Billy Davis
The special election for Panola County sheriff is a month away, and the 11 candidates seeking the office are wooing voters with a variety of tried-but-true methods, the most common tactic being old-fashioned door-to-door contact.
Like typical local-level races, the sheriff’s candidates say they are conducting mostly out-of-pocket campaigns to pay for yard signs, door hangers and advertising.
Among the 11 candidates, suspended jail administrator Hugh Wayne "Shot" Bright seems to be leading his competitors in reaching Panola voters.
Thousands of Panola County homes were the recipient of a recent Bright pamphlet that arrived through the mail. The brochure depicted a sheriff’s badge on the cover.
Asked last week week about the apparent abundance of the materials, Bright told The Panolian he mailed out 14,000 of them over a two-day period.
Bright said he is also handing out a "couple thousand" badge key chains and has passed out 1,400 yard signs in the ubiquitous campaign sign battle.
Asked about the price tag of the brochures and key chains, Bright said he was unsure of the total cost since "friends" delivered the items to the candidate.
One friend and supporter of Bright is Malcolm Rattner, a wealthy New Yorker who also lives in Tate County and owns an airplane hangar at the Panola County Airport.
Asked about Rattner’s contribution, Bright laughed at the rumor that Rattner had made a $40,000 donation to Bright’s campaign for sheriff.
"He gave me a donation but it’s not $40,000," answered Bright.
Bright is among 11 candidates seeking the sheriff’s office. The other candidates are Noel Aldridge Jr., Steve Chancellor, Antonio Daniels, John Hardy, John Rodgers, Craig Sheley, Kelvin Taylor, Jamie Tedford, Gary Thompson and Mark Whitten.
The election date is Tuesday, November 8.
A run-off will be scheduled for the following Tuesday if none of the candidates receive 50 percent of the vote.
While the sheriff’s candidates are competing for votes, Bright has enjoyed the most exposure to voters in recent weeks after he was sent home from his job at the Panola County Sheriff’s Department.
The longtime jail administrator under the late Sheriff David Bryan, Bright was sent home August 11 by interim Sheriff Ida Bryan amidst an investigation at the jail by the state Attorney General’s office and the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC).
The interim sheriff later released a statement about the investigation, explaining that state inmates were working outside the jail without undergoing a proper screening process. The sheriff’s department was assisting MDOC in correcting the problem, she also said.
Neither state agency released any information about their investigations, however, and any outcome of the investigation is unknown. Bright, meanwhile, has been campaigning ever since – now nine weeks later – on a theme that he is the victim of campaign politics.
"It worked in my favor because it was dirty politics," Bright said of the investigation. "It put me in the driver’s seat."
In addition to his direct mail materials, Bright is also spreading his message through newspaper, radio and billboard advertising.
Bright was the second sheriff’s candidate to rent a billboard ad. His ad went up recently in Batesville at the intersection of Hwy. 6 and Hwy. 51.
Sheriff’s candidate Jamie Tedford was the first candidate to utilize a billboard for the campaign. His campaign ad adorns a billboard near Hwy. 6 East and Lakewood Drive.
Bright and Thompson are running radio ads on Batesville station WBLE. Station owner J. Boyd Ingram said additional candidates are also planning to run ads in the coming days.
In The Panolian, candidates Craig Sheley, Gary Thompson, John Rodgers, Noel Aldridge, Steve Chancellor, Jamie Tedford, Mark Whitten, Antonio Daniels and Bright – nine of the 11 candidates – have submitted political announcements that publicize their campaigns.
Reached last week about his campaign, Whitten said he is mainly focusing on a door-to-door campaign to drum up support at the polls.
"I don’t have big bucks so I’m doing this on my own, which means I won’t owe anybody if I’m elected sheriff," Whitten said. "I’ve had some contributions, but 90 percent is coming from my own pocket."
Rogers said he ordered business cards and yard signs to spread the word about his campaign.
"I’m trying to go door to door, so most of the money I’m spending is on gas," said Rodgers.
Sheriff’s candidate Craig Sheley said he’s advertising his campaign through 50 8-foot-by-4-foot signs as well as yard signs. He has also ordered 6,000 so-called push cards.
"Mostly I’m talking to people and listening to what they have to say," Sheley told The Panolian.
Whether Bright or the other sheriff’s candidates spend $4 or $40,000 on their campaigns, each candidate is required by law to list their campaign contributions and expenditures with the state Secretary of State’s office.
That campaign finance form must be submitted by November 1, a spokesman for that agency said.
(This story is the first in a series of news stories leading up to the November 8 special election for Panola County sheriff. Next week: The Outsiders.)