Palazzo vs. Ezell: Congressional candidates use debate to accuse each other of lax work routines

Hannah Ruhoff/hruhoff@sunherald.com
·3 min read

U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo tried to flip the script Friday during a debate with his challenger in Tuesday’s runoff election, Mike Ezell.

The incumbent congressman is under an ethics investigation into his alleged misuse of campaign funds. He’s also been widely criticized for a record of absenteeism in Congress and inaccessibility to constituents, lending some to call him “No-Show Palazzo.”

But Palazzo used Friday’s debate — the first he’s attended of five debates held in the primary race — to accuse Ezell of ethics violations and not showing up to his job as Jackson County sheriff while on the campaign trail.

Neither Palazzo or Ezell got enough votes to win the June 7 primary election outright, forcing a runoff on Tuesday. The runoff winner will be the Republican nominee and advance to the November general election.

In Ezell’s opening statement, the sheriff said the main complaint he’d heard from voters on the campaign trail was, “Where’s Steven Palazzo?”

Ezell noted Palazzo has voted by proxy in Congress 66 times.

Palazzo acknowledged the proxy votes, but blamed many of his absences on contracting COVID, his daughter’s high school graduation, and canceled flights.

In contrast, Ezell said, “I’ll show up, I’ll stand up, and I’ll fight for Mississippi’s values” if elected.

Palazzo dismissed the ethics violations he is accused of as “allegations my opponents are making because they can’t beat me at the polls.”

Responding to the charges of his unavailability to constituents, Palazzo said, “I hear the same thing about Sheriff Ezell.”

Palazzo said unnamed employees of the sheriff’s office said Ezell “doesn’t show up at work, his parking lot is empty, and he’s been somewhat of an absentee sheriff cause he’s been campaigning on taxpayer dollars across the district” for the last 15 months.

Citing Sun Herald reporting on a raft of suicides at the Jackson County jail, Palazzo said, “You’re accusing me of paperwork, a clerical error. But people actually are dying in prison under your watch.”

“Things happen in jail, things happen in prison,” Ezell responded.

For all the heated exchanges regarding the two men’s records, there was little substantive disagreement on policy issues.

Both candidates welcomed Friday’s Supreme Court ruling overturning the constitutional right to an abortion.

Asked about their views on the validity of the 2020 election results, Ezell and Palazzo both said there were concerning irregularities in the vote count in several states, but recognized in vague language that President Biden is the U.S. president.

Both men condemned the congressional commission investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, while stopping short of endorsing the rioters.

A tense exchange also occurred behind the scenes.

In attendance at the debate, which was held at the WLOX-TV studio in Biloxi and not open to the public, was Clay Wagner, a former candidate for the congressional seat who has endorsed Ezell since dropping out.

Wagner told the Sun Herald the Palazzo campaign demanded that he and his wife leave the studio, despite their attendance at the invitation of the Ezell campaign — a demand Wagner found “inappropriate.”