LUCEDALE, Miss. (WKRG) — Republican voters will head back to the polls Tuesday to vote in a runoff election for Mississippi’s 4th congressional district seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The district includes 775,000 people in part of Clark and all of Hancock, Harrison, Jackson, Pearl River, Stone, George, Marion, Lamar, Forrest, Perry, Greene, Jones, and Wayne counties.
In the June 7 primary election, incumbent Rep. Steven Palazzo led with 31.6% of votes. Six challengers spilt the rest of the votes with Jackson County Sheriff Mike Ezell finishing closest behind Palazzo with 25.1%. Since neither received a majority of votes, the two are slated in the runoff.
Who can vote
Anyone that did not vote at all in the June 7 election, or anyone that voted in the Republican primary, is able to vote Tuesday, June 28. The only people not eligible to vote is anyone that voted in the Democratic or other party primary on June 7 and anyone not registered to vote in Mississippi by May 28.
Where and how to vote
All regular precincts for the regular primary and general elections will be open for the runoff from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Any voter in line at 7 p.m. is still legally entitled to cast a ballot.
All mail-in absentee ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday and received by County Circuit Clerk Offices within five business days of June 28 in order to count.
Voters are required to show photo identification at the polls. A voter without an acceptable form of photo identification is entitled to cast an affidavit ballot.
Who’s on the ballot
Palazzo, 52, of Gulfport, has held the seat since 2011. He previously served four years in the state legislature and is a certified public accountant with degrees from the Univ. of South Miss. He is also a Marine Corps veteran and serves in the Mississippi National Guard.
Ezell, 63, of Pascagoula, has been the Jackson County sheriff since 2014. His 42 years of law enforcement experience included serving as the Ocean Springs police chief. He’s also a graduate of the Univ. of South Miss. and National FBI Academy.
Where they stand on the issues
Both candidates took part in the first live debate of the campaign last Friday, hosted by WLOX-TV. The following stances come from their statements in the debate.
Proxy voting and absences
Ezell spent much of the debate citing conversations he said he’s had with local politicians saying Palazzo hasn’t shown up in the district or has skipped scheduled appearances on occasion.
“We need new blood. We need new, hard work and we don’t need the status quo,” Ezell said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi implemented proxy voting at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic where representatives could designate another member to cast a vote on their behalf if they weren’t present on Capitol Hill.
Palazzo joined a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of proxy voting. When asked Friday about the 66 proxy votes he has since cast, Palazzo said some have been due to cancelled flights, illness from COVID-19, or personal events like his daughter’s high school graduation.
“If I can take the opportunity to proxy so I’m on record so you know where my stance is when it comes to pro-life, pro-gun, pro-business, pro-border, pro-military, pro-veteran issues, I’ll be on record. I’m not gonna hide and miss votes because I’m afraid it’s gonna come back to haunt me,” he said.
Palazzo also said he has voted on over 7,500 bills in the 11 years he has been in office. Ezell refuted charges that he’s been an absent sheriff while campaigning for Congress, working on the race during many nights and weekends.
On gun control, both candidates expressed belief that the recent bipartisan gun reform law unfairly targeted legally-owned guns.
Palazzo suggested there should be more mental health intervention, while Ezell said stricter penalties were needed for known criminals so they could be imprisoned and/or prevented from owning guns.
Ezell joined a group of sheriffs in 2018 opposing part of the state’s open-carry law, saying guns shouldn’t be allowed by citizen permit holders in courthouses.
Palazzo argued Ezell was wrong to support the state supreme court’s decision that while judges can’t prohibit a person with an enhanced carry permit to bring a gun into the courthouse, they can prohibit guns in individual courtrooms. Palazzo said the rulemaking should stop at the legislature and courts should not have the stated power.
Defending his stance, Ezell said civil cases like divorce or child custody hearings can quickly become emotional and prohibiting citizens from bringing guns in courthouses should be an important safety measure.
On the economy, both candidates agreed inflation — particularly gas prices — are out of control and need to be stopped.
“We cannot continue to print money like we’re doing right now. That’s a big problem. We’re in debt by who knows how much- a totally crazy number,” Ezell said.
Both supported bringing the cost of energy down by becoming energy independent and supporting more oil drilling in the U.S., like the Keystone XL pipeline.
Palazzo also said he voted against many of the COVID stimulus funding initiatives, like the CARES Act and Paycheck Protection Program, calling them a “waste of money”.
“It didn’t help anyone. The first package was different. The second and third packages, we just look at the fraud the federal government allowed to happen,” he said.
Palazzo has been under a congressional ethics investigation for a year and a half over allegations of misspending campaign funds, doing favors for his brother and enlisting staff for political and personal errands.
While he had no timeline for when the investigation would finish, he said he’s ready to be cleared for having “unequivocally” done nothing unethical or illegal and “these are allegations that my opponents are making because they can’t beat me at the poll”.
Palazzo also accused Ezell of misrunning his sheriff’s office, based on conversations Palazzo said he’s had with current and former employees.
Ezell said he’s not surprised to hear the allegations from disgruntled former employees since he fired 50 people for misconduct in the eight years he’s held the office. Ezell took over the department from Mike Byrd, who resigned and was indicted on 31 counts, including embezzlement, extortion, and fraud.
“They elected me to clean it up and I’ve done that…I would welcome anybody to come examine anything in the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office,” Ezell said.
Experience and term limits
Palazzo cited his experience in Congress as helping bring federal money and private investments to south Mississippi. He also touted his record working side-by-side with President Trump to fund the border wall, taking care of veterans and funding military, and achieving seniority by becoming a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
“You may be good at law enforcement but you’re pretty naïve when it comes to legislating,” he said of Ezell.
Ezell said he’s proven he can run major organizations and would use his skills to serve more efficiently in Congress.
“I was told I couldn’t get that sheriff’s office turned around but I have. We’ve done that through hard work, dedication, showing up and being a part of the organization…I’ll take that same experience and can-do attitude into Washington,” Ezell said.
Palazzo sponsored legislation three times that would implement term limits to 12 years in office for members of Congress. If passed, he would not be eligible to run in this election, reaching his 12th year when the new term begins in Jan. 2023.
When asked about his stance, Palazzo said it would ultimately hurt the district if he personally chose not to run again while other experienced lawmakers remained in office with no legal precedent.
“Until everyone else term limits themselves, I’m gonna keep fighting for south Mississippi,” he said.
Ezell said he has no interest in serving more than 12 years in office and supports term limits for the entire House.
“I believe that if you can’t get some things done in 10 years or 12 years, you need to move on,” he said.
Jan. 6 Investigation & 2020 election results
Both candidates condemned the violence in the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection of the capitol. Neither believe former president Donald Trump is responsible for inciting the violence.
“There were some bad actors, and I want to get to the truth, but under this commission we aren’t gonna find the truth,” Palazzo said, going on to say it was on Speaker Pelosi to not properly arm capitol police to defend the building.
“You need to let the FBI and capitol police conduct the investigation. That would be the way to do it- this Nancy Pelosi witch hunt- it ain’t gonna happen,” Ezell said.
Both expressed concern with the 2020 election results in a few states but did not go as far as to repeat claims the election was “stolen”.
Russian invasion of Ukraine
Both candidates said the U.S. has a role to support Ukrainians in defending their country from Russian invasion.
Ezell said he supports doing “everything we can” to support Ukraine, except sending troops to fight. He also expressed desire to send a limited number of U.S. forces to the country to control where the resources allocated by Congress go.
“As we all know, when you start sending billions of dollars to another land, people are gonna misuse that money,” he said.
Palazzo argued the U.S. should’ve armed Ukrainians earlier, before Russia invaded.
Both candidates said they believe in the need to maintain the coast’s natural resources and look into alternative energy sources without pulling back too quick from investment in oil at the cost of consumers.
Endorsements and what’s next
Neither candidate has been endorsed by Trump. Ezell received the backing of all the other candidates for the seat from the GOP primary election.
The winner will face Hattiesburg’s former mayor Johnny DuPree as the Democrats’ candidate and Libertarian Alden Patrick Johnson in the Nov. 8 general election.