O’Hara, Dale, Stevens sue Democrats over ballot removal

Published 6:48 pm Friday, March 23, 2007

Insurance Commissioner George Dale, longtime House member Mary Ann Stevens and perennial candidate Shawn O’Hara filed lawsuits to get back on the Democratic ballot on Thursday.

O’Hara, whose attempt to run for multiple statewide and local offices was nixed by the Democratic Party, asked a judge to order the Mississippi Democratic Party executive committee and the local party in Forrest County to return his name to the ballot for seven statewide offices, two district, two legislative and eight county offices.

In a split vote Saturday, the state executive committee removed Dale and Stevens of West from the Democrats’ Aug. 7 primary ballot.

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Terry Cassreino, a spokesman for the Democratic Party, confirmed Thursday night that Dale and Stevens had both filed lawsuits.

Party leaders said the decisions to remove some candidates from the ballot were made because of questions of loyalty. Dale said publicly in 2004 that he was supporting the re-election of President Bush, a Republican.

Some Democrats say Stevens votes too often with Republicans on issues in the Legislature. However, another Democrat with a similar voting record — Rep. Jeff Smith of Columbus — was allowed to stay on ballots.

Dale was first elected in 1975 and is the longest serving state insurance commissioner in the nation. Since Hurricane Katrina struck nearly 19 months ago, he has been sharply criticized by some Gulf Coast residents who think he has done too little to make insurance companies pay claims.

The state party allowed O’Hara to remain on the ballot for only one office — state treasurer. No other Democrats are running for treasurer.

The Forrest County Democratic Party removed O’Hara from the ballot for local offices after he refused to narrow his candidacy to one office.

In his lawsuit, which gives only one side of the legal argument, O’Hara said he was illegally denied his constitutional right to seek public office and denied protections provided in the 1965 Voting Rights Act and 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Mississippi voters this year are electing all eight statewide officials and a long list of regional and local officials. March 1 was the candidates’ qualifying deadline. Party primaries are Aug. 7 and the general election is Nov. 6.

Current state law does not prohibit a candidate from seeking more than one office on the same day, but legislators are considering a bill to do so. In 2006, two candidates for a Mississippi Court of Appeals seat also were on the ballot for re-election to their trial court posts; they lost the appeals court race.

The Mississippi Republican Party on Thursday issued a news release criticizing the Democrats’ removal of candidates from ballots.

“The Mississippi Democratic Party has become captive to a radical fringe,” Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Jim Herring said in the release. “If you’re not a card-carrying member of the far left, Mississippi Democrats don’t want you.”

Wayne Dowdy, chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party, said previously he opposed removing Dale and others from ballots. He said Thursday through a spokesman that he could no longer discuss the issue because of litigation and would not respond to Herring’s comment.