TUPELO • A candidate for the Oxford Board of Alderman has withdrawn from the race, citing as a recent last-minute opinion from the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office as his reason for leaving.
Harry Alexander, a real estate agent in Oxford, wrote in a Facebook post he was withdrawing his candidacy for Oxford’s Ward 1 Alderman seat because, for a brief period within the last two years, he was not a resident of the ward. A recent opinion from the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office states that candidates for local office must be residents of the ward they’re wishing to represent for at least two years.
“It is with a great amount of frustration and disappointment that I am informing you that I am bowing out of the race for Alderman,” Alexander wrote. “Let me say first of all that it isn’t because I want to. Ward 1 voters have been extremely encouraging and supportive of me.”
After initially telling the Daily Journal last month he would not run for re-election, the incumbent alderman for Ward 1, Rick Addy, also announced via social media he now, in fact, will run.
“My understanding is that the candidate whom I supported will not qualify under this new opinion,” Addy said, presumably referring to Alexander.
Billy Crews, a development officer for the University of Mississippi, said he has lived in Ward 1 for eight years and is still eligible to run.
Ashley Atkinson, the municipal clerk for the city of Oxford, said the eligibility of four total candidates in the city of Oxford is under question because of the recent opinion. She did not name the candidates in question and said questions of certifying qualification forms lie with the city’s election commission.
Atkinson said the commissioners, most of whom are new members, intend to meet Monday morning to “go over all the candidates’ information and make the necessary decisions in light of the AG’s opinion.”
Even though questions and confusion have surfaced since the opinion, Colby Jordan, the spokeswoman for Fitch’s office, said in a statement to the Daily Journal that the Attorney General’s Office suggested multiple times last year that organizations and officials who had questions about the requirement should request an official opinion ahead of time to provide clarity on the issue.
“To be clear, we asked everyone that called, we reached out to everyone stating that someone should ask this question,” Jordan said. “No one did. Not the Secretary of State’s Office. Not the Mississippi Municipal League. Not anyone.”
Michael Watson, the Mississippi Secretary of State, in a statement to the Daily Journal, said the primary reason for requesting an opinion is to offer protection and a defense to the requestor.
Since the secretary of state’s office does not directly handle the qualification of candidates for local office, he felt this was not a question of law for his office to handle.
“We were aware of the AG’s initial interpretation and were in agreement with that interpretation as it fits within the plan reading of the statue,” Watson said. “Under these facts, no one would have thought it was necessary to request an official opinion on this issue.”
The Daily Journal last week obtained a copy of a 2020 video in which an attorney with the AG’s office told clerks it was the current interpretation of the office that the two-year residency requirement only applied to the municipality, but not necessarily the ward.
The attorney, however, stressed that her interpretation was not the official view of the attorney general’s office.
“Again, there is no official opinion, and until we get an official opinion request, there is no official position of the attorney general’s office,” the attorney said. “But that does appear to be our interpretation.”
It was late last year before a public body did request an opinion. Rob Roberson, board attorney for the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors, requested the attorney general’s office to weigh in after he concluded a candidate for the county’s election commission had not lived in the county the required two years to run.
But the candidate and their attorney argued Roberson was reading the statute wrong – so Roberson, who also serves in the Mississippi House of Representatives, asked Fitch’s office for clarity.
“I was just double-checking myself,” Roberson said, adding he didn’t want the board of supervisors to allow someone who was ineligible for office to run only to face a legal battle over it later.
It was irrelevant whether the elections commissioner candidate had lived in the proper district for long enough, Roberson said. The candidate had simply not lived in the state for the full two years. Roberson said the law, as it’s written, appears clear enough.
“I don’t know what was so confusing to everybody,” he said.
Luke Ramseth contributed to this report.