BY BRIAN JONES
The race for the District 39 House seat is heating up in Lowness County.
Incumbent Jeff Smith, who has served the district for 28 years, has some serious competition in Columbus realtor Dana McClean, a native of Columbus who returned to the area a few years ago.
With rumors and speculation and threats making the rounds, the Columbus Packet takes a realistic look at both candidates.
In the last couple of weeks rumors have surfaced that McLean, who is also an attorney, was disbarred, that she was arrested in Florida in 2013 and evicted from her home in 2014. Members of the community, including Smith himself in a Facebook post, have been urging people to google candidates, and, in an interview with the Packet, McLean addressed the stories.
First, McLean said, she is not now, nor has she ever, been disbarred.
“I don’t know where people got that,” she said. “Maybe they saw it on Facebook. My profile says I am a former lawyer. I have never had any discipline from the Florida bar, and I have never been disbarred.”
McLean said that she is listed as inactive with the Florida bar because she did not keep up with continuing education requirements.
“I have been back in Mississippi for five years,” she said. “For the first four years I was here I was still active with the Florida bar, but I decided to go on inactive status so I wouldn’t have to keep up with continuing education. For the five years that I’ve been here I haven’t practiced law.”
McLean said that she is still licensed to practice before the United States Supreme Court and the Florida Supreme Court, and is still in good standing with the Florida bar.
“If you look me up on the Florida bar’s web site, I am listed as being in good standing,” she added. “If I decide I want to practice again, I could catch up on the continuing education and file a petition with the bar. If I wanted to practice here, I would have to take the bar exam here. There isn’t reciprocity between Florida and other states.
“When I moved here I had just gone through a divorce and was not interested in practicing law here,” she said. “I enjoy helping people with real estate. I enjoy the work, and meeting people that move to Columbus and helping to promote Columbus.”
McLean said she was arrested in 2013 because she did not appear in court after a traffic offense. She was initially ticketed for having no insurance while going through a divorce, and the issue snowballed from there.
“During my divorce, which lasted for about a year, I was driving a vehicle that my ex-husband had paid insurance on,” she said. “The insurance wasn’t paid on that one, and I got pulled over and had no insurance. It was kind of a domino effect from there. My tag expired, and I couldn’t get my tag renewed because I didn’t have insurance. I had continued to drive the car because I had a daughter in middle school, and she had swim practice and other things to get to. Then I got cited for knowingly driving with a suspended license. Then I missed a court date, because it was in the middle of my divorce and I just missed it. A warrant was issued for failure to appear.”
The arrest happened when she was dropping her daughter off at the airport, she said.
“I was dropping my daughter off at the airport to fly to Columbus,” she said. “The airport cop saw that I had an expired tag. He ran my tag and saw that I had a traffic warrant and arrested me. I paid what I owed and that was the end of it.”
Finally, court documents have circulated showing that McLean was evicted from a residence in Florida in 2014. She confirmed that this was the case, and explained that it came from a dispute with a landlord.
“I had to sell my residence during the divorce,” she said. “My daughter and I had to find a rental, and we moved into a very expensive house in Tampa. It had just been renovated, and the landlord’s mother had used the backyard as a dump and buried trash back there. We had a terrible problem with ants, they were just all over, and I eventually paid for an exterminator myself and took it off the rent.
“Then we started having problems with trash and broken glass coming up out of the ground in the back yard when it rained,” she said. “I complained and complained but the landlord wouldn’t do anything about it. Finally I told them I wasn’t going to pay them any more rent until something was done, and they hired a lawyer and started the eviction process.”
McLean has lived in Mississippi for the last five years. She is a member of the Exchange Club; president-elect of the Columbus Arts Council; and a member of the Lowndes County Crime Task Force’s Education Committee, among other things.
Smith, who will turn 70 this year, was first elected to the represent the 39th District in the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1991. A self-proclaimed conservative, he was first elected as a Democrat. In 2011, he left his elected party and came out as a Republican.
Smith is an attorney who has a law office in Columbus. He was narrowly defeated by Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, in the race for the Speaker of the House in 2008. He is currently the Chairman for the Ways and Means Committee.
According to the Mississippi Secretary of State’s website, Smith filed a campaign finance report on June 10. The report claims he has taken in $41, 608 and has a balance of $23,558.
His largest donors include Electric Power Association of MS PAC — $1,500; ENPAC MS– $1,000; MS Coalition for Progress –$1,000; Neel Schaffer — $1,000; MS Concrete Industries Assoc. PAC — $1,000; BNSF Railway — $500 and Cornerstone Government Affairs — $500.
His largest donor was from MAE PAC in Tuscaloosa for $2,000. In fact, the June report does not show any donations made to the Smith campaign from local doors. The majority of his campaign money was donated from businesses and donors from the Jackson area, as well as Alabama, Texas and Washington DC.
His May filing with the SOS claimed a $1,000 donation from B. Keith Heard of Columbus. However, his January filing showed no local donations. But it did include a $1,000 contribution from the Mississippi Malt Beverage Association, $1,000 from Anheuser Busch (Budweiser), $500 from the Island View Casino in Gulfport, as well as contributions from drug manufacturer Pfizer (the largest U.S. manufacturer of injectable opioid products), tobacco manufacturer Swisher International (Swisher Sweets), both Atmos Energy and Mississippi Power, AT&T and Chevron. The donations came mostly from the Jackson area and states including New Jersey, California, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Virginia.
A 2015 report from votesmart.org claims Smith brought in almost $20,000 in out-of-state contributions. Contributors included Anheuser Busch, Pfizer, Motorola, Mississippi Power and Swisher International.
Smith also serves as the attorney for three boards – the Lowndes County School District, the Caledonia Natural Gas Board and Columbus Light and Water. While he served as attorney for CLW, he also received lobbying money from both Atmos Energy and Mississippi Power. For his services, Smith receives a base salary plus litigation fees, legal fees and a percentage for bond paperwork. For example, for one board he makes a base salary of about $70,000 plus fees, which could be more than $100,000 a year.
In May 2015, the Lowndes County School District issued a bond for $44 million for buildings and improvements, including the Career Technology Center. Smith received approximately $600,000 for his bond work. Both Smith and Lowndes County School District Superintendent Lynn Wright claimed the bond would not come at an increase to the taxpayers.
The school district has created a spending deficient of about $7 million. A member of the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors, who asked to remain anonymous, said the school district spent the bond money when they did not need to and on Feb. 28, 2018, Wright asked the county for money for furniture and equipment. The supervisor said the board denied the request, but he felt a tax increase from the school district is “inevitable.”