HATTIESBURG — Democrat Johnny DuPree points to his record as Hattiesburg mayor to show what he”d like to do if he”s elected governor of Mississippi.
The 57-year-old says that during his decade in office, he has helped create jobs and improve the quality of life, all while avoiding tax increases and layoffs or furloughs of city employees.
“We need to share with the world what a great state Mississippi is — a state of opportunity, not one of stumbling blocks. And we can do that in 2011,” DuPree said during a campaign appearance in his hometown.
Two-term Republican Gov. Haley Barbour couldn”t seek re-election this year, and the governor”s race attracted five Republicans, four Democrats and one independent. Two different Reform Party groups are trying to field a candidate.
Democratic and Republican primaries are Aug. 2, with runoffs Aug. 23. After the major-party primaries, the state Election Commission could consider which Reform candidate could appear on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.
On the Democratic side, DuPree faces attorney and businessman Bill Luckett of Clarksdale and two candidates who are running low-budget campaigns, retired tax assessor Guy Dale Shaw of Coffeeville and high school teacher William Bond Compton Jr. of Meridian.
Luckett was the top Democratic fundraiser through late July, but DuPree picked up a key endorsement from one of the most influential Democrats in the state — U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, who is well connected in his Delta-based 2nd District and beyond.
In a letter announcing his endorsement, Thompson wrote that DuPree is a competent candidate who could “move Mississippi into a posture for progressive change.”
“Johnny exhibited his ability to recruit businesses to our state when he helped recruit a multimillion dollar corporation to Hattiesburg that will add over 1,000 jobs for Mississippians, and he has demonstrated fiscal responsibility by not raising taxes during the 10 years that he has been mayor of Hattiesburg,” Thompson wrote. “Mayor DuPree epitomizes what determined and pragmatic leadership should be and will help Mississippi realize its full potential by bringing equal access and opportunities to all Mississippians.”
The Census Bureau website says Hattiesburg”s population increased from 44,779 in 2000 to an estimated 53,582 in 2009. The city”s population is 48.4 percent black and 46.9 percent white. DuPree is Hattiesburg”s first black mayor.
DuPree started working when he was 8 years old, selling copies of the Hattiesburg American newspaper to help supplement the modest income his single mother earned as a domestic worker. He recalls that the woman who ran the newsstand, Ms. Lillie, expected her young employees to work hard. He can still recite her slogan: “”Rain, shine, sleet or snow, Lillie”s papers got to go.””
DuPree and his wife, Johniece, married when he was 19 and she was 17 and they quickly had two daughters. He started his career working 15 years for Sears, Roebuck & Co., then started a real estate company in 1988. He joined the Hattiesburg School Board in 1987, became a Forrest County supervisor in 1992 and was elected mayor of Hattiesburg in 2001.
DuPree graduated in 1972 from what is now Hattiesburg High School. He later earned bachelor”s and a master”s degrees in political science from the University of Southern Mississippi and a doctorate in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He”s making his gubernatorial campaign a family affair. At most campaign appearances the past several months, he has been accompanied by his wife, one or both of their two grown daughters, a 4-year-old grandson and, often, a son-in-law.
Richard Jones grew up in Hattiesburg in the 1960s and recalled that he and other black residents had limited opportunities for recreation because a community center in their part of town was small and shabby, especially when compared to public facilities in white neighborhoods.
“They had Kamper Park, all the other facilities,” Jones said. “But as a black kid growing up in this community, we had nowhere to go.”
Jones, who”s the Forrest County Democratic Party chairman, presided over a Democratic dinner this summer at the C.E. Roy Community Center, which is in a mostly black neighborhood in Hattiesburg. The center has a spacious multipurpose room with gleaming wood floors, and a sparkling swimming pool out back — changes that came during the DuPree administration. Though he is remaining neutral in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, Jones publicly thanked DuPree and the City Council for improvements at the community center.
“To come in here this week and to start preparing for this occasion, I almost cried,” Jones said. “Thank you.”
As part of his gubernatorial campaign platform, DuPree proposes stepping up enforcement of tax collection efforts to collect more revenue from corporations that he said are not paying what they should. He also proposes providing income-tax exemptions for teachers with at least three years” experience — a step he said the state could take to help some of the lowest-paid educators in the nation.
Carla Key of Abbeville says she”s supporting DuPree for governor because he”s a family friend and “he has a lot of the Christian values, family values that I”m interested in.” She said she also likes ideas about education,
Key, who has a bachelor”s degree from Alcorn State University and a master”s from the University of Mississippi, commutes more than an hour each day to teach special education at a Memphis high school. She said she”s making $20,000 more in Tennessee than she could make in Mississippi. She said DuPree”s proposed tax break for teachers wouldn”t make up the entire difference, but would put more money in her pocket if she taught in her home state.
“I would love to see him come to office and make some changes so I can teach here,” Key said. “I would love to be able to use my Mississippi education to teach in Mississippi, but financially it”s not feasible.”