Johnny L. DuPree, current mayor of Hattiesburg, Miss., and its first African American mayor, is on a historic journey and if the political tide is in his favor, DuPree will become the first African American governor of Mississippi.
Already DuPree, a Democrat, has made history by being the first African American nominated by either party for the governorship of a state that sits at the heart of the dark days of Jim Crow. He defeated Clarksdale attorney and developer Bill Luckett in a Democratic primary runoff to face current Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant in the Nov. 8 general election.
But the question remains whether Mississippi can redeem itself from its sordid past by electing DuPree to become the first Black to be named chief executive officer of the state. DuPree said it is more than a redemption question. It is about who can do the best job for the citizens of Mississippi.
“I think Mississippi is ready for change. I think Mississippi is ready for the person that can come in and help effect a change in the state,” DuPree said in an exclusive interview with the Michigan Chronicle during a recent stop in Detroit to galvanize support for his November battle. “I don’t think that people are sitting around saying ‘you know I think I want an African American governor. People are sitting around saying I want a job. I want a house. I want my children educated. If he happens to be Black, hallelujah.”
However, DuPree laughed when asked if his election to the top post in Mississippi will be a public relations coup for the state because of how it could change the perception of outsiders about the southern state’s long and troubling racial history.
He replied, “I would think so. The reality is reality. History is history. There hadn’t been an African American statewide elected office holder although we have more African American elected officials than any other state. There has been a barrier that has not allowed us to be a statewide elected office holder.”
With the sweltering economy and its devastating impact on the lives of ordinary people, DuPree said he wants to make an improvement to people’s lives, and that he is going to go to Jack son to do just that.
“Although I’m proud to be African American, I can tell you that. I’m proud that Mississippi residents chose me to be the Democratic nominee,” DuPree said. “I think Mississippi should be proud. I believe they saw through all of this, the sordid history.”
DuPree said the current state of affairs in Mississippi shows that the state has fallen short on his platform of jobs, education, health care and small business development.
“We are struggling to balance the budget. That is why over the last five years the state has cut education by over 300 million dollars. That should not be cut,” DuPree said. “We have to find ways to increase revenue in the state.”
He said as mayor of Hattiesburg he’s running on executive experience because “states are just a mirror of cities.”
He cited, for example, that his city has gone through devastating economic times including Hurricane Katrina but “we haven’t laid off anybody and we didn’t raise taxes either. That is because we went through every department and found creative ways to sustain and increase services.”
According to DuPree, his state is slipping on the economic index as a job creator and he wants to bring in more small businesses that will help create jobs.
“We have to make sure small businesses, which are the backbone of the economy, get our support,” DuPree said. “These are the businesses that pay the taxes. They stay in our state and they don’t take the jobs out of town.”
DuPree had a stint in corporate America working for Sears and he understands how and why corporations get all the incentives and tax breaks.
“We have to do a better job of giving incentives to our small businesses,” DuPree said adding that the Occupy Wall Street protests ongoing in New York signal a sense of urgency to tackle education, the economy and other hot button issues that are affecting people.
He said a key priority for him when elected will be to ensure that companies that come to his state hire Mississippi contractors and businesses. That, he said, is the way to get the economy of the state sustaining and keeping jobs in the state rather than the jobs being exported.
Given the uniqueness of the gubernatorial campaign, it’s unclear if Democrats in Washington are seizing on the opportunity of the governor’s campaign in a place like Mississippi.
“I’ve spoken with DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. We have a good relationship and she has pledged to do what she can,” DuPree said.
Even though his opponent has a bigger campaign war chest than he does, DuPree said that’s always been his advantage.
“During the primary my opponent spent well over a million dollars and we spent about 400,000 dollars,” he explained. “We received more votes. What we do have is people who believe in a message. We have people who believe that I can’t do worse.”
He said his campaign is a people’s campaign because on the campaign trail voters are looking for somebody trustworthy and with good judgment who will identify with the bread and butter issues they are dealing with.
“We have people who believe it’s time for a change so they voted for us. So I think they are going to vote again. Money is important and I don’t want to downplay that. That is why I’m in Detroit. If I tell people money is not important, they’ll take the check home.”
Yet DuPree’s campaign has been about volunteers and ordinary people who have trust that he will be a different kind of candidate.
Coming as the first Black to be nominated by a major party in Mississippi since Reconstruction, DuPree has a unique story that gets people’s attention and has endeared him to many voters.
“I’ll never forget my first job. I worked as a newspaper carrier for Ms. Lillie’s Newspaper Stand, who worked for the Hattiesburg American. Ms. Lillie claimed that I was one of the most dedicated paper carriers she had,” he recalled.
“I don’t know if I was the best carrier, but I do know that I tried. I left for work every day wanting to be the best paperboy that Ms. Lillie had, mainly because I was aware that I was representing her. It wasn’t just my reputation that was on the line. If I didn’t perform well, not only did it look bad on me, but it would also be a poor reflection of her and the company that she was trying to build.”
He continued, “Her slogan, ‘Rain, shine, sleet or snow, Lillie’s papers gotta go,’ became a powerful lesson for me, and this slogan has guided many of the decisions that I’ve made throughout my life. No matter the circumstances, I had to be determined to do my best, whether I was mowing yards, bagging groceries, washing cars or working at the slaughterhouse.”