JACKSON — Matthew Barton, a Republican candidate for DeSoto County’s district attorney, on Friday appealed the Mississippi Republican Party’s decision to certify Mandy Gunasekara as candidate on the primary ballot for Northern District Public Service Commissioner.
Barton’s petition, filed in Hinds County Circuit Court, alleges that Gunasekara does not meet the residency requirements to run for the commission because she has been a Mississippi citizen for at least five years before the date of the election.
Sean Akins, Barton’s attorney, told the Daily Journal in a statement that the decision to take the residency issue to the state judiciary was not a partisan move, rather it is intended to protect the “integrity of the election.”
“Mississippi is fortunate that Matthew Barton is willing to demand that only qualified candidates are on the ballot for the Public Service Commission,” Akins said. “Residency requirements are in place so that only candidates with deep Mississippi roots are eligible to serve.”
Gunasekara in a statement to the Daily Journal called Barton’s appeal “comical.”
“Mr. Barton apparently has decided that his only way to defeat Gov. Reeves’ appointee is to continue his frivolous challenge to my candidacy,” Gunasekara said. “I look forward to the judicial system’s swift rejection of Mr. Barton’s shenanigans.”
Barton in previous interviews with the Daily Journal said he believed his opponent, incumbent DeSoto County District Attorney Bob Morris, has skirted residency rules, though he is not pursuing a residency challenge against him.
After former DeSoto DA John Champion died in September 2022, Gov. Tate Reeves appointed Morris to the vacant prosecutor post. Now, Morris is seeking election to the full post for a four-year term. He will face Barton in the Republican primary.
Candidates running for the PSC must live in the district they seek to represent, and have been a citizen in the state, at least five years before the date of the election, according to a qualifying guide published by the Secretary of State.
A native of Newton County, Gunasekara worked in Washington for several years on energy policy, including as chief of staff for the Environmental Protection Agency under President Donald Trump.
The Daily Journal previously reported that public voting records show Gunasekara participated in an election in the District of Columbia on Nov. 6, 2018. Mississippi's general election this year will occur on Nov. 7, 2023.
After she cast a ballot in D.C. in November 2018, Gunasekara registered to vote in Mississippi in January 2019, according to her voter record, which was obtained from the Mississippi Secretary of State's office through a public records request.
Property records with the District of Columbia’s office of tax and revenue also show that Gunasekara and her husband received a homestead deduction on property taxes there in 2021, just two years ago. To receive a homestead designation, a property must be occupied by the owner and must be the principal residence of the owner, according to the Washington office’s website.
A majority of the state GOP's executive committee convened on Feb. 16 and voted to allow Gunasekara to seek the party’s nomination for the utility regulator position.
Barton’s case was referred to newly elected Hinds County Circuit Judge Debra Gibbs, but state law requires Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Michael Randolph to appoint a special judge from outside north Mississippi to hear the challenge.
The two parties can also appeal the circuit court’s ruling to the state Supreme Court.
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