• 70°

Miss. gubernatorial candidates trade verbal jabs in first debate

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour and Democratic challenger John Arthur Eaves Jr. got testy with each other Thursday night during their first debate of the campaign season.

Eaves said Barbour needs to publicly disclose the details of his personal finances to show whether the governor still has monetary ties to Barbour, Griffith and Rogers, the Washington lobbying firm he founded.

Barbour said before he took office in January 2004 that he put his assets into a blind trust administered by a longtime friend who’s a banker in his hometown of Yazoo City, but recent news reports have raised questions about whether Barbour knows details of the trust.

“There is one question we have to ask: What is the governor hiding?” said Eaves, a 41-year-old trial lawyer. “Why won’t he release his financial information to know who he serves?”

Barbour, in turn, said Eaves has no issues to discuss and is a “mudslinger.”

“When a candidate has nothing to offer, when he’s got no record, he’s got no program, he’s got no plan, he’s got no facts, he’s got no ideas, then all he does is attack the other guy,” said Barbour, 59, who is seeking a second term in the Nov. 6 general election.

“I’m going to try to make this campaign about the issues because I know he can’t keep up there,” Barbour said.

Downtown Biloxi’s 900-seat Saenger Theater — built in 1929 as a movie house — was packed for the debate. Barbour and Eaves stood on opposite sides of the stage at lecterns in front of a red velvet curtain topped by two cherubs.

The first dozen rows were occupied by supporters of each candidate, and the two groups were separated by a yellow ribbon.

Although Barbour and Eaves have made dozens of appearances around the state, this was the first time they have appeared on stage and taken questions at the same time.

Eaves mentioned religion several times as he has in many other campaign appearances and on his television and radio ads.

“I have a plan to give that at the beginning of every morning — 10 minutes of prayer time so those children can begin to discover for themselves the fundamental questions of man and we can bring back discipline, respect for others and respect for each other to our classrooms. That’s the first thing that I would do as governor,” said Eaves, who sends his sons to private school, as Barbour did with his own sons when they were young.

Barbour said U.S. Supreme Court decisions have blocked efforts to put prayer in school, including efforts by Alabama. Barbour sarcastically called Eaves a “learned lawyer” who should know that.

“My fear is that politicians trying to make political points on prayer in school are going to jeopardize the prayer in school that we have now,” Barbour said. “And we do have Christian groups in school. We have prayer-around-the-flag-pole groups. We have people that organize religious groups at your school every day. I’m not going to jeopardize that trying to get somebody’s vote.”

Several times Eaves criticized Barbour, a former tobacco lobbyist, for having vetoed bills to reduce the grocery tax and increase the cigarette tax. Barbour said no one — including Eaves — can provide information showing how much revenue the state collects solely on groceries.

Eaves said he would propose a 2 percent tax on casinos to help pay for teacher pay raises. Barbour did not directly respond to that proposal, but said he is against increasing taxes.

The debate was hosted by The Issues + Answers Lecture Series and sponsored by the University of Southern Mississippi and The Sun Herald newspaper.

One of the Eaves supporters in the audience, Kerman Ladner, of rural Hancock County, said he agrees with the Democrat’s pledge to authorize voluntary prayer in public schools.

“We need that real bad,” said Ladner, a 40-year-old electrician who has a 13-year-old son in public school.

On the other side of the theater, Nell Frisbie said she has supported Barbour since he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1982 against Democrat John Stennis.

“He is probably one of the brightest men I have ever known,” said Frisbie, a 70-year-old real estate agent and past president of the Hancock County Federation of Republican Women. “He may talk slow and Southern, but he can hold a candle to anybody.”