Two progressives vie in Mississippi primary. Democrats picking governor nominee

Mississippi Democrats today choose their candidate for governor and, if tradition and numbers count for anything, the man they select will wind up in the State House. Democratic voters still overwhelmingly outnumber their Republican counterparts in the state. Just over 18,000 Republicans chose businessman Jack Reed as their gubernatorial candidate in their party primary. Just under 800,000 votes were cast in the Democratic primary.

State Auditor Ray Mabus - a young, aggressive Harvard-educated lawyer - is the favorite in today's Democratic runoff. Mr. Mabus led comfortably in polls taken last week.

His opponent is Mike Sturdivant, a businessman and Delta planter.

Either will be favored to defeat Mr. Reed in November.

The new governor of this state - whether Democrat or Republican - could preside over the further loosening of the century-old grip of the wealthy Delta planters over Mississippi government.

Both Democratic candidates would be likely to support a convention for redrafting the state constitution - an artifact of Reconstruction by which a Delta elite aimed to keep blacks and poor whites from political power.

If the constitution were revised, it could make the new governor the first Mississippi chief executive to wield power comparable to his colleagues in other states.

Although the numbers favor Mabus in this election, history is on Mr. Sturdivant's side.

The history is that the candidate who finished second in the gubernatorial primary has won every runoff since 1963. But none have made up so much ground as the 170,000 vote gap between Mabus and second-place Sturdivant. The winner of today's race will face Republican Reed in November. Although a very dark horse, Reed is taken seriously as a candidate. He handily won only the second Mississippi GOP gubernatorial primary in this century.

The difference between Mabus and Sturdivant politically is not dramatic. The choice, says former Gov. William Winter, is ``between two progressive, intelligent, successful men.''

Each carries a different shading, however, says Mr. Winter, who supports Mabus, his former aide. The older Sturdivant has ties with the old political establishment based in the county courthouses. Mabus has made his reputation as a reformer by aggressively pursuing corruption in the courthouses.

Although federal law has undermined much of Mississippi's constitution - which authorizes abolition of public schools and private corporations, among other things - it still leaves the governor with little power to run state government or control the budget. Instead, much of that power falls to legislative leaders.

House Speaker C.B. ``Buddie'' Newman, a Delta planter himself and longtime power broker who has watched governors come and go, is retiring this year. His retirement, says Winter, ``removes one of the most powerful obstacles'' to a new Constitution.

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