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Tort reform issue holding influence in funding for Senate candidates

[10/16/03]Much of the campaign money for state Senate District 23 candidates has come from sources consistent with their positions on tort reform.

Members of groups that have supported changing the state’s civil-justice system have contributed to Sen. Mike Chaney, 59, R-Vicksburg. The campaign of his Democratic challenger, Marcie Tanner Southerland, 50, has received contributions from attorneys who are members of the state’s trial-lawyer association.

Contributions and spending for July 1-Sept. 30 were on state-required forms that were due Friday.

Attorneys and employees of a McComb law firm and their relatives accounted for nearly half of the $24,800 in contributions reported by Southerland.

“I went to school with Nancy Armstrong,” Southerland said of a partner of Armstrong & Guy Law Offices LLC of McComb, who contributed $2,500 to Southerland’s campaign.

People identified as partners or employees, or sharing last names with affiliates of the firm, contributed a total of $11,750 to Southerland’s campaign during the period, her report showed.

Each donor fell under annual campaign-contribution limits of $1,000 for corporations and PACs and $2,500 for individuals.

Together with the $2,000 contribution from Minneapolis attorney Daniel M. Homolka to Southerland’s campaign, 55 percent of her contributions have come from attorneys or their associates.

Another McComb attorney, William S. Guy, contributed $2,500 to Southerland’s campaign. A partner at another McComb firm, Guy & Brock, he is listed as one of the 10-member President’s Club of contributors to the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association’s political action committee.

Chaney’s contributors, on the other hand, include several doctors and businessmen, and political action committees representing related organizations.

His two largest contributors, for example, were Herb Stathes of Vicksburg and the state automobile dealers’ PAC. Each contributed $2,000 during the period.

He also received $1,000 each from Ameristar Casino, the Mississippi Manufacturers Association and Dr. Chester Masterson, R-Vicksburg, the Republican nominee for state House of Representatives District 54 who faces no general-election opposition.

The donation from Masterson was from leftover money the state medical association had contributed to Masterson’s campaign, and was unsolicited, Chaney said.

Stathes, of Hill City Oil, bought the Chaneys’ business in 1991, the senator added.

Chaney’s report also shows two September payments totaling $675 to J.L. Mitchell, the former Central District constable who was convicted of extortion last year.

“He has worked for me since 1992, every election I have run in,” Chaney said, explaining that Mitchell has built signs for the campaign and will do the same this year. Mitchell planned to use his most recent receipts from the campaign to help complete payments on his court-assessed restitution, Chaney added.

District 23 includes Warren, Issaquena and part of Yazoo county.

Friday’s due date was the next-to-last before the Nov. 4 general election. The reports are required by law so that the public can learn who is funding campaigns and where candidates are spending donations.

The reports were the fourth required this year for candidates in all races and the fifth for those who were opposed in Aug. 5 party primaries.

Candidates are required by the state to list those who give to or receive from election accounts more than a total of $200 during any one year.

In a separate campaign-finance report form filed last week, the Old Bridge Political Action Committee reported $300 in contributions and $125 in spending. The PAC is chaired by Ray Duncan of Vicksburg and advocates using the now-closed U.S. 80 Mississippi River bridge as a park for pedestrians and bicyclists.