Two horizontal lines that split Mississippi roughly in thirds form the districts from which we elect members of the Mississippi Transportation Commission: one from each district. The politics of the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) involve lots of money, contracts and players who rarely make the television news. But understanding MDOT politics is quite simple: count to two.

It takes two commissioners to make decisions and this year we elect all three.

The Central Transportation District is shaped somewhat like a funnel with a wide western end that encompasses a large share of the Delta and narrows to run along the Interstate-20 corridor to Meridian where it jumps up to include Noxubee County. It is this district and that county that has created some of the fireworks in the transportation races this election cycle.

Incumbent Republican Dick Hall is running for his fourth full term as Central District Transportation Commissioner. Before this year, not only was Hall the only Republican commissioner, but he was outnumbered 2-1 in the transportation issue that transcended partisan politics: MDOT Executive Director Butch Brown. Brown, the former mayor of Natchez, ran the Mississippi Department of Transportation - an independent agency in our state - under the authority of other two commissioners. Brown was constantly at logger-heads with Hall. Hall criticized Brown for MDOT decisions like purchasing a helicopter ostensibly to watch for gasoline smugglers on the Mississippi River. Brown essentially banished Hall from the massive MDOT headquarters across from the Mississippi Capitol to a temporary trailer for his office. Brown himself became a notorious character in the pages of Mississippi newspapers for antics including an alcohol related arrest at a casino, anger management courses and colorful language to reporters and about federal officials.

Hall found relief earlier this year when Republican Mike Tagert of Starkville defeated six candidates in a special election and run-off for the Northern District Commission seat to fill the vacancy created by the death of Commissioner Bill Minor.

With Tagert on the commission, Hall had the second vote necessary to fire Brown - and they did. In that district, Tagert now faces a challenge from Democrat Ray Minor of Holly Springs. Ray is the brother of the late Bill Minor and was one of the defeated candidates in the special election.

For Hall, this campaign is an opportunity to serve a term unencumbered by his conflict with Brown. But first he must overcome a challenge by Democrat and former Jackson Councilman Marshand Crisler who reported raising nearly $140,000 on his latest campaign finance report to Hall's just under $270,000. But incumbency and money aside, the central district of Mississippi does not necessarily favor Republicans. Hall won reelection in 2007 by a margin of 10,600 votes to carry the district with 52.2 percent over Democrat Rudy Warnock, Jr. But then in 2008, Barack Obama took 52.1 percent to John McCain's 47.3 percent for President; and, Democrat Ronnie Musgrove bested Republican Roger Wicker 52.9 percent to 47.1 percent in these 22 counties. Meanwhile, Republican Thad Cochran barely covered the Central District with 50.9 percent over his Democratic challenger Erik Fleming.

And thus we come to the eternal answer to the question asked this time of year, "Who will win?" The answer always is, "It depends on turnout." The Macon Beacon of Noxubee County reported that the Crisler campaign was playing the race card - literally - to boost black turnout which conventional wisdom says will boost Democratic votes. Two different campaign push cards were, according to the paper, being distributed to voters depending on their race. Whites were given cards which stressed better roads and economic development while blacks were given cards promising "to increase minority participation in MDOT contracts" and saying the district is "majority African American" and "if we show up, we win!"

Were Crisler to defeat Hall, the seismic shift at MDOT might be as massive as the one which occurred when Tagert joined Hall to fire Butch Brown.

In the Southern District, Republican state Sen. Tom King of Petal faces Democrat Larry Albritton of Picayune. King is currently Chairman of the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee and Albritton served two terms on the Picayune city council. Incumbent Democratic Commissioner Wayne Brown did not seek reelection.

Outgoing Commissioner Wayne Brown supported Butch Brown (no relation to Wayne) as executive director. However, many in the world of Mississippi transportation politics and road building who support King, also supported Brown: both Wayne and Butch. Many also support Crisler.

If Hall wins reelection, he and Tagert (who is expected to win) will likely continue the same current course joined by King (who is expected to win). However a Crisler win could shift MDOT back to the Brown supporters with Hall out of the way. Either way, the transportation factions who win will be the first ones who can count their commissioners to two.



Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Contact him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms.