Transportation Commissioner election

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 7, 2011

Unknown names seek powerful office at MDOT

By Billy Davis

Panola Countians who vote for transportation commissioner next Tuesday will likely see a list of unfamiliar names on the ballot.

The race for the public office drew seven candidates from seven counties, with State Rep. Warner McBride of Batesville among the most familiar here at home.

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In addition to McBride, the list of candidates is John Caldwell, DeSoto County; Dennis Grisham, Tippah County; Joey P. Hood, Itawamba County; Larry Lee, Grenada County; Ray Minor, Marshall County, and Mike Tagert, Oktibbeha County.

The January 11 special election is being held after Commissioner Bill Minor passed away Nov. 2, setting up the race to finish his term.

Lee, who owns a truck parts business in Grenada, told The Panolian this week that the race amounts to a popularity contest.

And it does. McBride will enjoy a lot of support from his home county, since he enjoys a base of support here.

Others also know the politics involved: it would benefit Panola to have a transportation commissioner from Batesville, much like it would benefit Grenada, too.

Board of Supervisors president Gary Thompson said this week he is supporting McBride for that very reason — he’s a fellow Panola Countian, and the supervisors would have a mighty good contact if the longtime state rep gets elected.

Thompson said he has heard very little about Grisham, a longtime county supervisor who is past president of the Miss. Association of Supervisors.

The scuttlebutt is that Grisham is being pushed by supervisors statewide, but Thompson said he has not heard such reports. He surmised they are leaving Panola County alone for obvious reasons.

Another name on the candidate list is John Caldwell Sr., a former DeSoto County supervisor.

Caldwell, a Republican, ran for commissioner against Democrat Minor and got trounced at the polls.

It didn’t help that Caldwell was absent for much of the campaigning at the time — he was serving in Iraq for the U.S. Marine Reserves.

Caldwell’s current campaign literature shows he is running again as a Republican, even though the special election is non-partisan.

There are other unknowns in the race, too: candidate Minor is the late commissioner’s brother, and candidate Hood was serving as an MDOT aide to Bill Minor when he passed.

A high-stakes election is coming Tuesday, even if turnout at the polls fails to reflect it.

“The taxpayers are spending almost $1 billion a year on roads in Mississippi and they need people leading that charge that are knowledgeable and involved,” Wayne Brown, one of the transportation commissioners, told The Sun Herald, the Gulf Coast newspaper, in a story last year.

When you boil down that statement, it means lots of people who build lots of roads have lots at stake in who sits on the commission.  

Deciding where and when roads and bridges are built and repaired falls in the lap of the three-person commission, with the executive director of MDOT carrying out their plans.

Larry “Butch” Brown is the embattled executive director of MDOT.

Dick Hall, the only Republican, is the second transportation commissioner.

Brown, the commissioner quoted above, has said he will not seek a new term.

In the Herald story, Wayne Brown was responding to an investigation by the newspaper that showed Brown and others had accumulated more than $200,000 in official travel expenses in a four-year period.

Destinations included out-of-state ventures in Budapest, Vienna, Brussels, Puerto Rico and Cancun.

The Sun Herald and The Clarion-Ledger have blistered the commissioners and the executive director over and over again. A story from December showed a railroad consultant was paid more than $800,000 by MDOT for his $100-an-hour services.

The State Auditor is said to be investigating that contract, according to the Herald.