A central Mississippi-based political action committee is targeting local state lawmakers primarily for their support of public education and opposition to charter schools.
These incumbent lawmakers said that Empower PAC is duping voters and raking in cash.
Their view is disputed by the PAC's founder and CEO Grant Callen, who argues that his organization is only trying to give parents options in educating their children.
In a phone interview Thursday, Callen said his organization supports public education, as evidenced by endorsement of DeSoto County public school teacher Ashley Henley, who is running for office in the House District 40 race.
Nonetheless, some DeSoto County incumbent lawmakers aren't pulling any punches. They say that they want to pull the mask off the Empower PAC and expose their ties to charter school lobbyists.
"Empower Mississippi is a front for some organizations out there which are dangerous," state Rep. Forrest Hamilton, R-Olive Branch, said while on the campaign trail Thursday. "The number one target is our public school system. That's why we are the target," Hamilton added, referring to himself and fellow lawmakers Rep. Wanda Jennings, R-Southaven, and Rep. Pat Nelson, R-Southaven, who have supported DeSoto County Schools and voted against proposals to set up charter schools in Mississippi.
Records on file with the Mississippi Secretary of State's Office show that the Empower PAC has contributed $21,350 to the campaign of Hamilton's opponent, Dana Criswell. The PAC has contributed $22,850 to help Jennings' opponent, Steve Hopkins. The Empower PAC has given a total of $11,800 to Nelson's opponent, Ashley Henley, this reporting period and a total of $21,000 year-to-date.
State Rep. Wanda Jennings, the dean of the DeSoto County legislative delegation, said her staunch support of public education is a badge of pride and she doesn't shrink from that support.
"Our job is to protect DeSoto County, not necessarily the rest of the state," Jennings said. "That's what the voters elected us to do."
Jennings said it's misleading and disingenuous at best that lawmakers like herself who voted "no" on charter schools received a failing grade from charter school backers such as Empower PAC.
Nelson defended his support of public schools, arguing that the school system is the "economic engine that drives DeSoto County."
"When our schools go down, our communities go down," Nelson said. "People move here to put their kids in our schools. Our companies and our corporations want to go to a place that has a good quality of life and that includes our schools."
Nelson said the rise of Empower Mississippi can be traced to the charter school movement and outside corporations eyeing lucrative software contracts with charter school organizations hoping to get a toe-hold in the state.
Nelson said a bill in 2012 had no safeguards in place or accountability standards for charter schools and the DeSoto County delegation was successful in getting that charter school effort pushed back until 2013, when charter schools got a green light to operate in failing or poorly performing school districts.
Lawmakers agreed that charter schools made sense in failing school districts but to allow them in high-performing districts would take badly needed education funds away from school districts that were performing well.
"It's all about the charter schools," Nelson said.
Campaign finance disclosure records show that between Jan. 1 to April 30, 2015, Empower PAC received almost $365,000 in donations from anti-public education forces.
These donors include Joel Bomgar of Madison, who is running to fill the seat of longtime State Rep. Rita Martinson, R-Madison and the Mississippi Federation for Children PAC, based in the suburban Washington, D.C. area.
Hamilton said most voters are totally unaware that Empower Mississippi, with its support from the charter school movement, would have a devastating affect on DeSoto County's public educational system if the organization's preferred slate of candidates were to be elected.
The charter school movement poses a direct threat to DeSoto County's prosperity, according to Hamilton.
"We can lose a Wal-Mart or a Taco Bell, but if we lose our schools, we lose our county. The battle lines are being drawn. The people running against us don't have a background in supporting public education."
Hamilton said the amount of money coming in from out of state to help defeat pro-public education candidates is staggering.
"There is a money trail there," Hamilton said. "If they take us out, they will have the power to rake in a lot of money."
State Rep. Pat Nelson, R-Southaven, defended his record of voting for public education and also dismissed complaints from his Republican challenger Ashley Henley that he disclose smaller denominations of contributions amounting to $200 or less.
Mississippi state law states candidates do not have to disclose contributions of $200 or less.
"Small contributions represent people who will vote for you and work for you," Nelson said. "There are a lot of people who like to make a contribution of $200 or less who don't want their name listed because they fear other candidates will be calling them asking for contributions. The law is there to protect people who make smaller contributions."
"The people who are in the business of selling software for charter schools are behind this (campaign to defeat public education supporters.) Our delegation stood together and opposed that bill. They are coming after us."
Callen said Empower PAC, based in the Jackson suburb of Madison, said his organization has poured money into the campaigns of challengers running against DeSoto County incumbents because, in his view, the incumbents were "not conservative enough."
"We're involved in a lot of races across the state," Callen said, pointing out that in several counties Empower Mississippi has supported incumbents.
"We simply believe some of the candidates are not as conservative as their state is."
However, Jennings said she is as conservative as it gets, and should not be the target of what amounts to a smear campaign. She touts her "pro-life, pro-gun" stance and hopes that voters won't be fooled by allegations that she isn't "conservative enough," just because of her staunch defense of public education and DeSoto County teachers. In addition to receiving superior ratings from the Mississippi Association of Educators, she also has received ringing endorsements from pro-business groups like the Mississippi Association of Realtors, the Mississippi Homebuilders Association and the National Rifle Association, the Mississippi Right to Life, Mississippi Manufacturers Association, National Federation of Independent Businessmen and other conservative organizations.
As for Empower Mississippi's support of public education, Callen said the Empower PAC is not a foe of public education.
"We're big supporters of public education," Callen said. "We have made it clear that we would like to see parents have more options."
Callen said his organization was a supporter, for instance, in supporting special needs legislation that helped to set up a pilot program funded through the Legislature. That effort was aimed mostly at assisting children outside the public school setting, primarily in home-schooled or private school situations.
Callen said the Empower Mississippi PAC is not engaged in some sort of personal vendetta against candidates who do not support the PAC's views.
"I have nothing against them personally," Callen said. "When Ashley Henley announced her candidacy in District 40, I met with her. We liked what she stood for, as a 13-year veteran as a teacher. I liked her resume. I would do the same thing for Dana Criswell," he said of Hamilton's opponent.
One thing is for sure. The race for the State House and Senate is only heating up as the Aug. 4 primaries draw near, and the campaign rhetoric isn't expected to cool anytime soon.
Robert Lee Long is Community Editor for the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He may be contacted at email@example.com or at 662-429-6397, Ext. 252.