It’s crunch time in Mississippi’s 4th Congressional District, and the incumbent is running like the race is over even though he’s part of the establishment and people are fed up with the shenanigans in Washington.
In other words, it sounds a lot like 2010, the year Republican Rep. Steven Palazzo sneaked up on then-Rep. Gene Taylor.
Well, it’s 2016, and Palazzo is the incumbent, but he’s still running as an outsider, railing against President Barack Obama and the Beltway’s free-spending ways.
His opponents — Democrat Mark Gladney and Libertarian Ric McCluskey (perennial candidate Shawn O’Hara is running another stealth campaign on the Reform ticket) — are trying to hang the out-of-touch label on Palazzo, who refuses to debate them. Last week, he said through a spokeswoman, his son’s junior varsity football game and a Jones County Junior College ring ceremony were more important.
“He’s never here (in his district),” Gladney said. “He doesn’t do town meetings.”
Though Donald Trump’s poll numbers are deteriorating rapidly, Palazzo showed up at the Harrison County Republican Club earlier this month with a bunch of Palazzo yard signs that included “Trump for President.” That, McCluskey said, should anger Trump supporters.
“Like it or not, Trump has been one of those guys who doesn’t run away from an argument or debate,” McCluskey said. “So Steven is endorsing that style of candidate but yet he has turned into the exact same style of politician that Trump despises.
“Are you going to be like the guy you’re endorsing and debate, or are you going to continue to cower down?”
Palazzo has been criticized about his inaccessibility, but it hasn’t been a successful campaign strategy for his opponents.
That hasn’t stopped them from doubling down. McCluskey and a handful of supporters stood waving “Make Palazzo Debate” signs outside the Salute to the Military in Biloxi on Tuesday night, where Palazzo was speaking. McCluskey’s position on the debate issue, you could say, has evolved.
“It’s pretty simple,” he said. “He’s a coward.”
Gladney has been getting more vocal as well.
“It smacks of an elitism that Palazzo thinks that he doesn’t have to. And I’ve got to tell you, it’s wrong,” Gladney told WDAM just two days before a 4th Congressional District debate in Hattiesburg last week. “The voters are getting screwed over right now.”
Palazzo hasn’t been the most visible candidate, sticking to friendly crowds such as the HCRC, where he took the obligatory potshots at the media and Obama. He said he was focused on “national security and caring for our veterans and jobs and the economy.”
But even though he was “preaching to the choir,” there were a couple of pointed questions from the audience, including one from a man who wondered why Congress couldn’t budget and appropriate instead of passing stopgap continuing resolutions to keep the government open.
Palazzo blamed the Senate, saying the House passed every appropriations bill.
“That’s where the fear of the veto comes in,” he said. “When (Senate Minority Leader) Harry Reid calls up ... says he’s going to filibuster something, they don’t even debate it, they just pull it off the calendar.”’
House and Senate committees did pass 11 appropriations bills. The full House passed five of them and the Senate passed three. Only the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriation was approved by both.
“Back when the nuclear agreement was being discussed, I called on Mitch McConnell to do away with the filibuster, do a simple majority,” Palazzo said. “If our national security is not worth breaking that tradition, that Senate custom, what is?”
Undeterred, the man in the audience pressed on, reminding Palazzo that Republicans had both houses of Congress.
Palazzo then launched into an attack on continuing resolutions and omnibus spending bills, which he voted in favor of.
“When you get back to the appropriations process, that’s when you get back to governing and governing right,” he said. “And I pray we will have a day when we get back to that.”
Partisanship an issue
Gladney faults Palazzo for the partisanship that has derailed Congress.
“He’s offered no solutions,” he said. “People are tired of that. I try to engage people and find common ground.
“The answers are in the middle.”
He said government is inherently expensive. And he’s in favor of spending the money necessary for it to be effective, whether that spending is for winning wars or taking care of senior citizens.
“I am all about being smart about the way taxpayer money is spent,” he said. “I am about investing in human capital, not giveaways. I’ve earned everything I’ve ever gotten, just like most people down here.
“And most people down here don’t have a problem with helping people and giving them better opportunities.”
McCluskey, who once compared Palazzo to the elusive Pokemon, said Palazzo is all talk when it comes to conservatism.
“They talk about fiscal conservatism all the time,” he said. “But I don’t know if Steven even knows what the word means. The Democrats are going off a fiscal cliff at 100 miles an hour and the Republicans are proudly boasting about going off the same cliff at 90 miles an hour. Eventually, someone has got to slam on the brakes.”
He said Palazzo has voted with Obama on spending every time.
“At some point, the people have to understand, we’re being hoodwinked,” he said. “He pulls the old bait and switch. He’s telling us one thing and doing another.”