Without face-to-face debate, Eaves and Barbour outline differences

Published 10:18 pm Saturday, June 23, 2007

A Democratic gubernatorial candidate on Friday invoked Jesus and Jimmy Buffett as he outlined his vision for Mississippi, while the Republican incumbent discussed jobs and energy.

Democrat John Arthur Eaves Jr. and Republican Gov. Haley Barbour made back-to-back appearances before about 70 newspaper editors and publishers, business representatives and others at the summer meeting of the Mississippi Press Association.

Eaves, a 40-year-old attorney from Jackson, said he wants to create a state program to provide health coverage for all of Mississippi’s uninsured children. He said it would cost $18 million to $20 million, but he didn’t name a source for the money.

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Eaves also said he wants to allow voluntary, student-led prayer in schools. He said it would be open to all faiths, but “I believe, as a Christian, they’ll come back to Jesus.”

He said Barbour is beholden to oil, tobacco and insurance interests that made Barbour wealthy as a Washington lobbyist.

“He continues to be a lapdog for the moneychangers,” Eaves said during the forum at the Beau Rivage casino resort, where he said he felt like “Daniel in the lion’s den” because he had pledged not to accept campaign contributions from casinos.

In a separate appearance moments later, Barbour responded to little of what Eaves had said. Instead, the first-term governor bragged about the state economy and recited a long list of job-creating projects that are under way, from a Toyota plant that’s being built north of Tupelo to a coal-to-liquid energy plant that’s being considered near Natchez.

“I can remember when businesses came to Mississippi looking for strong backs and low wages,” said Barbour, a 59-year-old Yazoo City native. “Now they come looking for strong minds, and they’re willing to pay for it.”

Barbour also announced that he will lead a delegation to Japan next month to try to attract automotive suppliers. He said Mississippi is an ideal location because suppliers could provide parts to the Toyota and Nissan plants here and to Nissan, Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes plants in nearby states.

Barbour said in the 3-1/2 years he has been governor, Mississippi has brought its budget into shape without increasing state taxes. He also said the state this term has spent record amounts on education.

Eaves blamed Barbour for the increases in college tuition, the increased Medicaid tax on hospital beds and the increased local costs of elementary and secondary education.

Eaves filed a lawsuit last fall on behalf of 39 south Mississippi residents against oil companies and distributors, challenging the increase in gasoline prices after Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005. Among the defendants in the lawsuit was Exxon Mobil Corp., and a spokeswoman for the company last fall said Exxon Mobil had acted responsibly after Katrina.

On Friday, Eaves said: “As governor, we will pass laws that will say no matter who you are, no matter if you are the CEO of Exxon, if you price gouge and take advantage of Mississippians, we’re going to give you some jail time.”

Later, Barbour was asked to respond.

“We ought to jail the newspaper publishers first. Y’all all got monopolies,” Barbour said to laughter from the MPA audience. “I think that makes about as much sense as the other suggestion.”

In a coastal region that still faces years of recovery from Katrina, Barbour said he understands some people are frustrated by the pace of rebuilding. Eaves talked about meeting people who are having mental health problems because of the storm.

“I guess we could remember what Jimmy Buffett says sometimes: ’If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane,”’ Eaves said.

Party primaries are Aug. 7. Barbour faces one little known opponent, and Eaves faces three who have raised little money. The general election is Nov. 6.