Dearing, Sojourner eyeing District 37 seat

Published 12:05 am Sunday, January 3, 2016

NATCHEZ — When the Legislature convenes Tuesday, two Natchez politicians will be eyeing the seat at which they once sat.

But who will get to claim the chair at the table will ultimately be decided by a committee of five of their peers, hand-picked by legislative leaders.

Former Sen. Bob Dearing officially won by 64 votes the race against Sen. Melanie Sojourner — who displaced him in 2012 — in November, but Sojourner has appealed the results in December, citing alleged irregularities.

Sojourner’s challenge alleged — among other things — that 234 of 286 absentee ballots in Adams County did not have witness signatures written across the envelope as required by state law, ballot and voting machine reader card safety measures were disorganized and ballots were improperly secured.

She also cited reports by poll watchers that poll workers in Bude provided assistance in instances where it wasn’t warranted and other times when photo identifications weren’t checked. Five poll workers have been charged in connection with the Franklin County reports.

If the Senate tosses out the Bude precinct, as Sojourner has requested, she would win the race with 8,020 votes to Dearing’s 7,842.

Once the Legislature is convened, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves will appoint a committee of five to hear Sojourner’s challenge. The appointees will come from each of the state’s four congressional districts, as well as one at-large candidate.

“I have been told the hearings will start Jan. 13, and they will be held in the old Supreme Court chamber at the state capital,” Dearing said. “It will be almost like a trial. My opponent will have her attorney there, I will have my attorney there, they will say why they think my opponent should be seated and my attorney will argue I should be seated.”

Dearing said he feels confident going into the hearing, and he has several pieces of legislation planned for filing.

“I have been certified by Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann as the winner by 64 votes, and I think that is going to stand up,” he said.

Sojourner said she and her team have been busy moving forward with evidence collection, taking depositions and witness interviews so that as soon as the hearing opens it can move forward.

“I have been told the evidence is very solid,” she said. “What we are wanting is an opportunity to have the evidence presented to the panel in a fair and open process so a committee can determine the will of the voters and what took place. The most important thing to me is that the integrity of the election is upheld, and that is what we are seeking.”

Sojourner said she has heard concerns that the district will be unrepresented while the hearings are under way, but because the deadline for introducing bills won’t be until 30 days after the session starts, the hearings will be over by then.

“Regardless of what happens in this challenge, there are bills and other things that have been brought to my attention by the people I represent, and I am still going to fight for those things,” she said. “If I am there, I will introduce them, and if I am not, I have friends in the senate who will take those issues forward.”