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By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
JACKSON, (AP) â€” Even city slickers who think chicken arrives on earth plucked, butchered and shrink-wrapped will have a say in choosing Mississippi's next commissioner of agriculture and commerce.
It's one of eight statewide offices on the ballot this fall, and the race is wide open because Democrat-turned-Republican Lester Spell chose not to seek a fifth term as commissioner.
Three candidates are competing in the Aug. 2 Republican primary, and the GOP nominee will face Democrat Joel Gill and the Reform Party's Cathy L. Toole in the Nov. 8 general election.
The agriculture commissioner's race is a decidedly down-ticket contest in a year when the open jobs of governor, lieutenant governor and state treasurer are grabbing most of the attention.
Each of major-party candidates in the ag race brings some level of name recognition because of past political involvement.
Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith of Brookhaven, was first elected to the state Senate 12 years ago, representing a district that includes all of Lincoln and Lawrence counties and part of Simpson County. She's current chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and is known around the Capitol as a hard worker who's constantly on her cell phone with constituents. She and her husband, Mike, are cattle farmers and partners in Lincoln County Livestock, where weekly cattle auctions are held.
Hyde-Smith, 52, was elected to the Senate in 1999, 2003 and 2007 as a Democrat, but she's fiscally conservative and was far from being a party-line voter on issues ranging from education to health care to budgets. She switched to the Republican Party this past December, saying she was concerned about the future of Mississippi and the United States.
"There are serious concerns on my heart. That is truly why I'm here," Hyde-Smith said at the party-switching news conference.
Republican Max Phillips, 64, of Taylorsville is a farmer, a former agriculture teacher in public schools and former agricultural banker. He says he's been a Republican for 25-plus years, and this is his third race for agriculture commissioner.
Phillips was the Republican nominee for agriculture commissioner in 2003 and received 32 percent of the vote in the general election. Spell was still a Democrat in 2003 and won with 66 percent. A Reform Party candidate received nearly 2 percent.
In 2007, Spell was a Republican and received 54.5 percent of the primary vote to Phillips' 45.5 percent.
In an interview this past week, Phillips told The Associated Press that Mississippi should process some of the crops that are grown here, including cotton and sweet potatoes. "Agriculture is a third of our economy and we still have a tremendous undeveloped potential," he said.
Republican Dannie Reed, 59, of Ackerman, was first elected to the state House in 2003 in a district covering parts of Choctaw, Grenada, Oktibbeha and Webster counties. He is a former Choctaw County extension agent and is a member of the House Agriculture Committee. In the House, he pushed for years to increase safety and training requirements for young people on all-terrain vehicles, but those efforts fell short.
Democrat Joel Gill, 59, of Pickens, ran for Mississippi's 3rd District congressional seat in 2008 and 2010, losing both times to Republican Gregg Harper. Gill is a cattleman and has been national membership chairman for R-CALF USA - Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America. He has been mayor and alderman in Pickens.
Mississippi's Department of Agriculture and Commerce has a wide range of duties â€” inspecting meat, promoting state-grown agricultural products, investigating livestock and timber thefts, regulating pest-control services and dealing with infectious animal diseases. The department also oversees the state fairgrounds and inspects gasoline pumps. So, even voters who know very little about agriculture are likely to be affected in some way by the performance of the next commissioner. That's something to keep in mind on election day.