Pickens Mayor Joel Gill (D) and Brookhaven Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) plowed off in a candidate forum Monday hosted by the Stennis-Capitol Press Luncheon at the University Club in Jackson. The two compete on the November ballot for Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce.

On the issues the two seem mostly on the same side of the fence. Both advocate country of origin labeling; both support this November's ballot initiative to restrict eminent domain for private economic development use; both agree genetically modified crops should be a farmer's choice. At issue seems to be experience.

Gill argued his two terms as Pickens alderman gives him legislative experience, and his current term as mayor provides executive experience. He stressed the need to increase country of origin labeling; his opposition to mandatory radio frequency identification tagging of farm animals; his support of GIPSA (Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Act) which he says will help small poultry farmers against large corporate competitors; and his desire to make improvements to the Mississippi Fairgrounds Complex.

Gill, a cattleman with operations or customers in six states, also said he believes the cost burden of pollination control should be on those farmers who choose to use genetically modified crops and not on their neighbors who may choose traditional crops. He wants to expand Farmers Markets; reform pest control license investigations; and remove what he called "vitriol and partisanship" from the agency.

Gill's "All Beef, No Bull" campaign for congress in 2008 lost with 37.5 percent to Republican Gregg Harper who dispatched Gill again in 2010 when Gill managed 31.2 percent of the vote. Gill's latest campaign finance report shows $5371 raised; $4513 spent; and $858 cash-on-hand.

Hyde-Smith discussed the importance of agriculture and challenges facing the industry including the increased cost of corn for poultry and cattle farmers.

She explained some of the role of the Department of Agriculture and Commerce as a regulatory agency: inspecting 78,000 gas pumps a year, overseeing labs at Mississippi State University and Alcorn University; managing the agricultural theft bureau; and overseeing the Mississippi Coliseum. She believes a private-public partnership utilizing corporate sponsorships could be the solution to renovating or replacing the coliseum. She said she has worked with Texas to attempt passage of a country of origin labeling act similar which would boost Mississippi's catfish exports to the Lone Star State.

Hyde-Smith is completing her third term as state Senator representing portions of Lawrence, Lincoln and Simpson counties. She served as Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee for the past eight years. She said she knows the people and knows the processes to manage and budget the department. A fourth generation beef farmer and partner in the Brookhaven stockyard, Hyde-Smith switched to the Republican Party late last year.

Hyde-Smith's most recent campaign finance report showed $211,623 raised; $178,707 spent; $14,263 cash-on-hand. She surprised many pundits by defeating both her primary opponents without a run-off, and has the support of outgoing four-term Commissioner Dr. Lester Spell. Spell, who first won election as a Democrat in 1995 before becoming a Republican humorously said at the 2010 Neshoba County Fair about his legacy, "I'd like to be remembered as the last Democrat ever to be elected as Agriculture Commissioner in Mississippi."

Questioned on how they would view additional federal stimulus money for agriculture, Gill said, "If there is more money coming to Mississippi, grab all you can figure out how to use it. I hesitate to mess with our free enterprise system, but I'd be willing to accept any money that came our way." Hyde-Smith said, "We should prepare for less money coming from the federal government."

Concerning ethanol, Hyde-Smith said, "Agriculture needs a place at the table on biofuels. Ethanol will have to stand on its own one day," and cellulosic ethanol from timber and grasses based on research at MSU and companies like KiOR are leading the way on those technologies. Gill said, "We don't need to be using food for our fuel." He said ethanol damages engines, is not very fuel efficient, and we should focus more on developing domestic fossil fuels.

Reform Party candidate Cathy L. Toole of Biloxi will also be on the ballot. Her most recent campaign finance report showed $200 raised and spent year to date.

The political seeds have been sewn and the campaign machines are tending the electoral fields. With her strong showing in the Republican Primary, fundraising advantage and ties to the current administration, I expect Hyde-Smith to harvest the most votes this November.

The next luncheon sponsored by Mississippi State's John C. Stennis Institute of Government and the Capitol Press Corps will be Oct. 3 featuring incumbent Democrat Attorney General Jim Hood and his Republican challenger, former Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson.





Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Contact him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms or follow him @capstoneperry on Twitter.