3 Dems vie for party nod for Miss. auditor; one runs from GOP

Published 6:45 pm Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Sure, the state auditor’s job is to hold Mississippi public officials accountable for the way tax dollars are spent.

Sure, the race for auditor is wide open this year because the 10-year incumbent, Republican Phil Bryant, is running for lieutenant governor.

As they run for a not-so-sexy, by-the-numbers kind of job, candidates for auditor find themselves in a campaign conundrum.

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Their race is not as expensive, or contentious, as races for governor and lieutenant governor, which are eating up most of the media attention around the state. Nor is the auditor’s race ginning up the same kind of attention as the intense, locally fought races for sheriff and county supervisor, the ones that frequently determine the level of voter turnout.

Three Democrats are on the ballot for auditor in next Tuesday’s party primary: educator Todd Brand of Bailey, attorney Jacob Ray of Jackson and longtime state audit employee Mike Sumrall of Mt. Olive. If a runoff is needed, it will be Aug. 28.

State Sen. Stacey Pickering of Laurel is the only Republican running for auditor. The two party nominees will compete in the Nov. 6 general election.

Ray, 29, said his experience in the attorney general’s office would help the state if he becomes auditor. The McComb native started working in the attorney general’s office as spokesman in May 2004, before he took the bar exam. After passing the bar, he became an attorney in the office’s opinions division, working primarily on giving advice to city and county officials.

“If we cut down on errors on the front end, we can cut down on these auditing costs, investigative costs,” Ray said in an interview this week.

Ray also worked in the division of the attorney general’s office that handles the state’s side of criminal appeals.

“We need someone who understands the laws and we need someone who can work with the Legislature to strengthen the laws,” Ray said.

Sumrall, 50, said he has 28 years’ experience working for state and local government, including 23 in the state auditor’s office. Among other jobs, he has served as business manager for Pike County schools.

“I am the only candidate running with an accounting degree. I’m the only candidate running that’s actually done audits,” Sumrall said last week at the Neshoba County Fair.

Sumrall said the state auditor’s office has been doing too little to watch the way school districts, colleges and local governments are spending public money.

“Right now, the state auditor’s office is the weakest it’s been in 20-something years,” Sumrall said.

Brand, 33, is a Simpson County native. He has a doctorate in community college leadership and is the chairman of the Fine Arts and Communication Division at Meridian Community College. In the past, he taught at East Central Community College and Brandon High School.

Brand said he has long been fascinated by the work of the auditor’s office. He said he wants to create a scholarship program to encourage accounting majors to work in the office, which he believes is understaffed.

“The biggest debate this year is should the auditor be a policeman or should it be an accountant,” Brand said in an interview Tuesday. “I think it’s a balance in there. I think the auditor should be a leader/manager.”

Pickering, 39, works part-time doing public relations for Howard Industries, his campaign said. He also is a cousin of Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering. Stacey Pickering said that as chairman of the Senate Local and Private Committee, he has worked with mayors, city council members, county supervisors and sheriffs across the state, and he believes most politicians seek public office for honorable reasons.

“But we also have to be aware that there are always those one or two individuals who will always take advantage of the system, no matter what system they’re in,” Stacey Pickering said. “We must hold them accountable for the public trust.”

On the Net:

Todd Brand campaign: http://www.toddbrand.com

Jacob Ray campaign: http://www.jacobrayforauditor.com

Mike Sumrall campaign: http://www.sumrallforauditor.com

Stacey Pickering campaign: http://www.staceypickering.com