Jim Hood is Mississippi's attorney general. He's the guy who took on Google over prescription drug sales and, under some public pressure, became the first state official to ever prosecute a case connected to the murders which inspired the movie "Mississippi Burning." He did battle with insurance companies after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast and insurers tried to wriggle out of paying claims. During the 12 years Hood has served as Mississippi's attorney general, he has focused attention on child pornographers and took a Mississippi-based mega-tax evader, WorldCom, to court.
Oh, and somehow Hood has managed to get elected three times in Mississippi ... as a Democrat.
Right now, Hood is the only Democrat who holds a constitutional statewide elected office in the Deep South. In Mississippi, Republicans -- Sen. Thad Cochran and Sen. Roger Wicker -- hold both of Mississippi's U.S. Senate seats. And to be clear here, Mississippi also has a Republican governor, lieutenant governor, and secretary of state. Its House and Senate are GOP-controlled and Republicans serve as state treasurer and the state's insurance and agriculture commissioners.
In every other Southern state, things are pretty much the same. But Hood has managed to defy that, winning his first attorney general election in 2003 and reelection bids in 2007 and 2011. He is currently seeking his fourth term and leads in the polls.
Hood is a native of Mississippi, born not far from the hometown of a certain Elvis Presley. Hood earned both his undergraduate and law school degrees at Ole Miss, the name most Southerners use for the University of Mississippi. That's the state's largest university but a place that many other Americans know primarily as the scene of a 1962 riot in which two people were killed and several others injured when federal marshals had to escort a black Air Force veteran, Jame Meredith, on campus. Meredith, also a Mississippi native, became the first black person to enroll at Old Miss. All of that is to say that Hood, who is white, grew up and began to practice law in a state with an undeniably bad racial history and where race and resistance to social change has long played some kind of role in political outcomes and party affiliations.
Hood will face off with Republican Mike Hurst in the Nov. 3 general election, where he will attempt to continue his singular status as a Deep South Democrat. The Q&A below is edited only for length and clarity.
The Fix: So we hear that you are the only Democrat who holds statewide office in the Deep South. True?
Hood: Well, technically if you drew a line from Oklahoma to South Carolina, there are going to be 10 states below that line. That's the South, or at least the Deep South. And in that area, when it comes to Democrats, there's me and there's Senator Nelson from Florida. And that's pretty much it. (A note from The Fix: Nelson must stand for statewide elections but technically holds a federal office. Hood holds a statewide constitutional office.) Just us.
The Fix: How do you explain this? How have you managed to get elected as the Republican Party's grip on the area tightened?
Hood: Well, I think it’s probably several things. One: I was sort of grandfathered in. I have been in office for 12 years. When I first got elected, at the time there were four Democrats in statewides. Two: I have been able to raise enough money to get our message out, and I was a law clerk in our Supreme Court. I interned in the attorney general's office and then worked in the office for five years. I was a [district attorney] for eight. So I think I'm pretty qualified, been qualified for the office for some time.
But really, what I think it probably is, is people. People think of the South and say, 'Oh, they are such red states.' 'That's just a red area of the country.' But you know, people like who they like, who they understand and connect with and who they think understands them, their needs and concerns.
And, to tell you the truth, it probably helps a lot too that I'm doing law enforcement stuff, putting people in jail and stopping folks from getting ripped off or hurt. That's not really a partisan issue.
The Fix: Well, if it's that simple, as simple as connecting with voters, why aren't there more Democrats in office in the Deep South?
Hood: The problem, I think, has been for Democrats with the corporate money pouring in on the Republican side, the influence of Citizen's United, just about all that money is pouring in on the Republican side. It's just hard for a Democrat to get his message out or counteract and correct what your opponent is saying about you. But if you can do that and raise enough money, the Democratic message is still strong in the South. You can, at least, get people to hear you out.
The Fix: Well, Republicans have had control of the South a long time before the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in Citizen's United. What else have Republicans been doing that helps them so effectively defeat Democrats?
Hood: Well, like I said, I think that Republicans often have a lot more in the way of resources, they can get their message out when a lot of Democrats really struggle with that. But, when they get really desperate, when they are maybe out of options or just don't mind playing to the lowest denominator, you can expect them to go somewhere ugly. Like, right now, my opponent has got ads on the air that try to link me to Barack Obama and insert race into the election.
The Fix: Wait. Is that what the damage of being linked to Obama is really about? Is it about race?
Hood: Well, I think if you look at it, look what happened to [Sen.] Mark Pryor [D] in Arkansas and [Sen.] Mary Landrieu [D] in Louisiana. They lost pretty recently [in 2014]. That's what their opponents did there. That was the undercurrent of the campaign waged against them. It always is. It's never said explicitly, but that’s what they use when they get desperate. Race. Now, the South's remaining Democrats in Congress are almost gone. But, like I said, for me I think the single most important factor is I do my job and I have been trained to do it well. And when I do, that work really isn't partisan stuff.
We've put a lot of time and attention into cybercrime, where we've been pretty progressive, we've targeted child pornography. And we've done a lot of stuff on Google and their online "Canadian" pharmacies.
The Fix: Interesting. If it's the work that you think really sells you, what would you say have been your biggest cases, your most important work since you came into office?
Hood: Well, I'd say Katrina litigation. Katrina hit and we had to really tangle with insurance companies down here. The summer before that, in 2005, I tried that "Mississippi Burning" case, that the case involving the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers.
(A note here from The Fix: There was some public pressure on Hood to indict one of the men that had been tried by a federal court and an all-white jury but was not convicted. Jurors in the federal trial told the press they could not convict a preacher. Decades later, when Hood brought charges against that man, Edgar Ray Killen, he became the first Mississippi official to ever attempt to prosecute a case related to the 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Killen, by then 80-years-old, was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison) .
We've had some other big cases.We took on and won a $100,000 million tax fraud case against WorldCom. We recovered $100 million for the state of Mississippi and made them throw in their original headquarters in downtown Jackson too. So that wound up being a $125 million case. Those first couple of years were kind of busy. Since then, we've been doing a lot on domestic violence, cybercrime work to protect children on the Internet and the elderly. And if you do your research -- now I say "research" because I can't use "Google" as a verb -- as I said, we've been pretty active on drug sales.
The Fix: What? You don't use Google as a verb? Why? And what's this about drug sales?
Hood: Yeah, I really don't. We had to take them on so I like to use the words "search" or "research." But that's all connected to the sales issue. Back in 2011, Google entered into a $500 million plea agreement with the federal government and promised to stop prescription drug sales without a prescription -- to stop the so-called "Canadian pharmacies."
But we hopped on and have a bunch of drug buys in the time since. And what we were able to buy, you would not believe. I mean pain pills, some kind of liquid birth control, an injectable -- just about anything you can think of without any kind of a prescription. You know we have all heard that you can just visit Canada or order from Canada online and get the very same high-quality prescription drugs for much less. Well, they are not. "Canadian pharmacies" -- that's a misnomer.
But Google turned around and sued us. (Another note from The Fix here: Google has claimed that Hood's investigation is politically motivated due to e-mails between Hood and the Motion Picture Association of America leaked due to the Sony Pictures hack. Hood's office was also looking into the sale of illegal movies online. Both the prescription drugs inquiry and the movie probe had the backing of other attorney generals around the country. Both have been put on hold.)
The Fix: Okay. So you have this approach that's worked for you. But what would you tell other Democrats who might want to run for statewide office or get involved in statewide politics? From the outside, things look pretty bleak for Democrats.
Hood: Well, I think the pendulum has begun to swing the other way. So many people, I think, are tired of the yelling and the screaming on the wings of both parties, that people are really looking for calm and middle ground. I know that's probably hard to see or believe from 10,000 feet, but that's what I think is starting to happen. We've kind of pushed and restructured and redistricted ourselves into this mess. I'd say give it four years. People are going to start paying more attention to moderates.
But, I won't sugarcoat it. It's a tough environment down here right now. You don't ever know for sure how an election is going to turn out. The polls look like they are in our favor -- they showed things 57-35, going our way (Fix note: This is an internal poll result released by Hood's campaign). But, you don't ever know. So I've got to do what I would tell anybody trying to run their first race right now. I have to work pretty darn hard.