Leading Third District candidates face off in historic Neshoba debate

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 1, 2002

PHILADELPHIA &045;&045; Crowds squished through red mud as they flooded the Founders Square pavilion at the Neshoba County Fair Thursday to hear Third Congressional District candidates Reps. Chip Pickering and Ronnie Shows square off in only the second debate of the fair’s 106 years of political speeches.

Pickering, a Republican, opened the debate talking of patriotism and Operation Enduring Freedom but quickly drew a parallel between the state’s historically conservative values and his stance on several issues.

&uot;This election is about our values and who will stand and fight for our values,&uot; Pickering said.

Email newsletter signup

But in his opening remarks, Shows, a Democrat, wasted little time before going on the offensive.

&uot;Let’s get straight to the issues,&uot; Shows said. &uot;This election is about three things: jobs, greed and trade. It’s about who comes first.&uot;

Shows went on to draw a distinction between him and Pickering, saying Pickering routinely voted party lines for bills supporting corporate America and hurting small businesses.

Shows was also met with the first slap from a fairly rowdy crowd.

&uot;Who comes first?&uot; asked Shows, referring to small business or corporate America. The crowd responded with a resounding, &uot;Chip!&uot;

In fact, Pickering supporters peppered Shows with shouts of &uot;Hillary&uot; (referring to Shows accepting campaign contributions from Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.) and boos to other answers.

Debate moderator Sid Salter, Perspectives editor for The Clarion-Ledger and longtime Neshoba County Fair-goer, repeatedly reminded both Pickering and Shows supporters to keep their participation to applause and cheers after the candidates finished speaking &045;&045; but neither side paid attention.

Buddy Bynum, editor of the The Meridian Star; Jim Prince, publisher of The Neshoba Democrat; and Emily Wagster, with The Associated Press; served as the panel leading the debate.

Wagster posed the first question, asking both who they will support as Speaker of the House, which has been a hot issue for the Pickering campaign who has accused Shows of claiming to be a conservative Democrat but supporting more liberal Democratic leaders.

&uot;I am proud to stand with the leadership of my party because their values are Mississippi values,&uot; Pickering said.

Pickering chastised Shows, who is pro-life, for supporting &uot;pro-abortion, anti-Second Amendment candidates.&uot;

Shows countered, saying he often differs with his party’s platform.

&uot;I’ve been voting for pro-life issues since you were in high school and I was in the state Senate,&uot; Shows said.

Shows said his support of a Democrat as Speaker is not based on moral issues but economic issues.

&uot;Your leadership is the same leadership sending our jobs to other countries,&uot; Shows said.

And though his supporters were applauding his response, Shows’ next statement drew massive heckles and boos from throughout the pavilion.

&uot;I’m going to vote for the Democrat that is put up there,&uot; Shows said.

In the only time either candidate seemed to get testy, Shows shot back at his detractors, &uot;Go ahead and boo when your jobs are going away.&uot;

In response to a question from Prince on defining &uot;liberal&uot; and &uot;conservative&uot; and telling where each stood, both candidates took the opportunity to shore up points they knew their opponent would attack.

Shows highlighted his independence from his party on certain &uot;value&uot; issues.

&uot;I’m not going to let any leadership tell me what to do,&uot; Shows said. &uot;On the faith-based initiatives, I was one of the Democrats walking the aisles rounding up votes.&uot;

Pickering used his response to paint himself as a friend to small businesses.

&uot;I’ve got a 100-percent rating from (National Federation of Independent Business),&uot; Pickering said. &uot;Ronnie has only a 50- to 60-percent rating.&uot;

Bynum led the candidates into what is already the central issue surrounding the state Supreme Court races &045;&045; tort reform. He asked each candidate if they would support caps on non-economic damages.

&uot;I would support reasonable, common sense caps on pain and suffering, non-economic damages,&uot; Pickering said, adding he does not support caps on actual damages.

Pickering said his reason for supporting caps comes from seeing skyrocketing insurance rates. He used St. Dominic’s in Jackson and the Jefferson County clinics as examples. St. Dominic’s insurance rose from $1 million last year to $6 million this year, while Jefferson County’s hospital saw rates grow from $50,000 to $250,000, he said.

Shows said the problem lies not with the courts but with insurance companies.

&uot;(Caps) are just another example of corporate America trying to stick it to the little people,&uot; he said.

Shows said insurance rates are high because the premiums are used by insurance companies to invest in the stock market.

&uot;In a time when the economy is bad and the market is down, the only way to make money is to raise premiums,&uot; Shows said.

The most colorful exchange between the candidates came from Wagster asking about Shows’ calls for Pickering to return $83,000 in campaign donations from WorldCom.

&uot;I think its common sense courtesy and compassion to people who are losing their homes,&uot; Shows said. &uot;He’s got $1.5 million in his account. What’s it going to hurt to give back $83,000 to help the working people of Mississippi.&uot;

Shows said he does not believe Pickering has done anything wrong by keeping the donations, but that his actions are insensitive to those who have lost money in WorldCom.

Pickering has said he did not return the donations because they were legal.

In response to Wagster’s question, Pickering turned the tables on Shows, drawing the largest response from the crowd and kicking off several chants of &uot;Hillary.&uot;

&uot;I’m surprised Ronnie of all people would make campaign donations an issue,&uot; Pickering said to a roaring crowd. &uot;He has made more illegal contributions than any member of the Congress in the Mississippi delegation.&uot;

Shows has been fined twice in the past year for accepting illegal donations, the largest fine being $25,000 for $85,000 in illegal donations.

Shows also questioned Pickering’s support of Fast Track bills Shows said are opening up trade routes that suck jobs from rural areas. Shows pointed to NAFTA and President Bush’s recent decision to award open trade to China.

&uot;Ronnie has voted for trade with China more than I have,&uot; Pickering said. &uot;I voted against it the last time up; he voted for it.&uot;

Both Shows and Pickering agreed on keeping the Meridian Air Force base open and not privatizing Social Security.