Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Voters of Senate District 9 are used to seeing Gray Tollison’s name on the November state general election ballot.
After all, he is seeking his sixth term representing the district that consists of all of Lafayette County and a portion of Panola.
But this is the first time the 51-year-old Oxford attorney is running as a Republican. He changed parties days after being elected as a Democrat in 2011.
That party switch, in part, convinced Cristen Hemmins, an Oxford small business owner, to run against Tollison.
Both say they are running active, aggressive campaigns.
Hemmins said what solidified her decision to challenge Tollison was “the day I saw our senator leading the charge for Initiative 42A to try to confuse voters about the people’s Initiative 42.”
As Senate Education chair, Tollison helped lead to passage the alternative to the citizen-sponsored Initiative 42, which will be on the November ballot and is designed to put new language in the Mississippi Constitution to enhance the state’s commitment to public education.
The Legislature opted to place an alternative on the ballot in direct opposition to Initiative 42. It was the first time in the state’s history for the Legislature to place an alternative to a citizen-sponsored initiative on the ballot.
Hemmins is a vocal supporter of Initiative 42.
After changing parties, the Senate Republican leadership rewarded Tollison by making him chair of the Education Committee. He said he wants to continue his work on education issues if re-elected.
“I think we have made some solid progress of moving the needle to give every child a solid education,” Tollison said. “I have been able to work with the leadership, the lieutenant governor and the speaker, to effect change.
“It is not going to happen overnight. But the work we have done, I believe, will make a difference.”
While some have voiced concern that education has been underfunded $1.7 billion since 2008, Tollison said he is more concerned with ensuring that funds get to specified programs and to the classroom.
He cited increasing funding for early childhood education programs and early grade literacy programs.
“We have approached these programs on a small scale,” Tollison said. “Now we can move to increase money for those programs.”
Hemmins said she is running, “because as a mother of three kids in the public schools and the daughter of a kindergarten teacher of more than 40 years, I have gotten completely fed up with the lack of support for our public schools in Mississippi.”
Tollison said tax cuts he voted for in the 2015 session – to phase out the business franchise tax and to reduce the income tax – costing the state general fund about $550 million when fully enacted over a 15-year period “was a reasonable piece of legislation that would make up competitive with other states and countries.”
Hemmins said, “This election is being driven by education and people who care about public schools and want to defend schools from privatization. They are saying education is not a partisan issue.”