- Associated Press - Sunday, August 9, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Empower Mississippi shook up the state Legislature even as some establishment Republicans sought to stifle the organization.

The group supported challengers who unseated four Republican House incumbents in DeSoto County. Those incumbents had often opposed school choice measures that Empower backs.

Also in DeSoto, one Empower-backed Republican won an open House seat and another is in a July 25 runoff for a second open House seat.

“It’s tremendous that we were able to support a bunch of winners, but the candidates deserve the credit,” said Grant Callen, Empower’s executive director.

That triumph came even despite opposition from some Republicans. House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, endorsed all the DeSoto incumbents who lost. Multiple Empower board members resigned, while another said he was pressured to quit.

The conflict came down to this: four years after Republicans had won control of the state House for the first time in more than a century, was it a good idea to target incumbent Republicans who were insufficiently conservative on some issues?

For Callen, the answer was yes.

“We believed in the rightness of our cause,” he said. “Having detractors is not new for me and it wasn’t surprising at all through this process.”

But Charlie Ross, a former state lawmaker who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2007 and Congress in 2008, left the board saying he wanted to focus elsewhere.

“In general, I am not one that thinks we should spend our time going after other Republicans,” Ross said in June. “I think we should focus on going after Democrats.”

Franc Lee, CEO of the company that owns Tower Loan, also left the board. Lee said he supports Empower’s agenda and was comfortable challenging some incumbents.

“I think that anybody that got on that board knew they were going to go after some Republican incumbents,” Lee said in June.

But he expressed unease with Empower’s opposition to Pearl Republican Ray Rogers, an eight-term House member. Rogers beat Empower-backed Randall Stephens, winning 55 percent of votes.

“Ray’s been a good friend to me and been a good conservative vote for a long time,” Lee said. “How about I leave it at that?”

Bill Billingsley, an Empower board member who got no money from the group in his losing challenge to state Sen. Will Longwitz, R-Madison, said “the feedback kept getting stronger and stronger” that his association with Empower was a liability for some donors.

Billingsley said he rejected pressure to resign.

“That’s not the kind of person I am and Grant is a friend of mine,” he said.

Empower spent $255,000 before the primaries, with the four DeSoto challengers getting more than $111,000. The group has raised $450,000 since its 2014 creation, with $360,000 coming from the American Federation for Children. That Washington, D.C., group advocates for school choice, including charter schools and public aid for private school students. Another $30,000 came from Joel Bomgar, a software entrepreneur who won a Madison County House seat in the Republican primary.

Bomgar had been labeled Empower’s mastermind, especially after some Empower phone calls went out bearing his name on caller ID.

Bomgar said he gave that number to a pollster for his campaign. He said he suggested the pollster to his friend Callen and when Empower hired the group, the pollster wrongly used the same number.

“I had nothing to do with it,” said Bomgar, who hasn’t served on Empower’s board.

Callen said Empower is focused on supporting candidates in runoffs and increasing Republican legislative majorities this November.

“They’ve had a reform agenda,” Callen said of Republicans. “We just need to give them more numbers.”

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy


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