Black Candidate Wins Gubernatorial Primary In Miss.

Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree made history Tuesday by winning the Democratic primary runoff for governor in Mississippi, where an African-American hasn't been elected for statewide office since Reconstruction. Host Michel Martin and DuPree discuss politics and his life.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a moment, we will hear about how a controversial new immigration law in Alabama has divided the faith community there. That conversation is coming up.

But first, a conversation with a political newsmaker. On this program, we've been talking about the new memorial to the late civil rights icon, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is scheduled to be officially dedicated this week. A host of dignitaries, including President Obama, are expected to be on the National Mall for the festivities.

And although Dr. King was not himself an elected official, his work clearly made it possible for a generation of black Americans to aspire to, run for, and win high political office.

And now, another of those leaders has reached a historic milestone. On Tuesday, Mississippi voters chose Johnny DuPree as the Democratic nominee in that states governor's race. DuPree, who currently serves as the mayor of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, is the first African-American to become a major party nominee for that office in modern times. This despite the fact that Mississippi has the largest number of black elected officials in the country.

Mr. DuPree won the nomination by capturing an estimated 55 percent of the vote in a runoff against attorney and developer Bill Luckett. Mr. DuPree will face the Republican Lieutenant Governor Phil Bryant and others in the fall.

And Mayor DuPree joins us now. Welcome and congratulations. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mayor JOHNNY DUPREE: Well, thank you, Michel. I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to come on, and I accept your congratulations. It's been a long year.

MARTIN: Now, as we said, you're a history making black candidate and we know that you're not focusing on race in your campaign. And we're going to talk about that in a minute. But coming as your victory does in the week in which the King memorial is dedicated, as I mentioned, I did want to ask you if you feel that your selection as a Democratic nominee is as significant as so many other people obviously think that it is?

DUPREE: Well, I think it's significant simply because, you know, I admire Martin Luther King, Reverend King so much, you know? And I know the description of this is out of a mountain of despair comes a stone of hope. And so, I understand what he meant when he said that. I understand the struggles that African-Americans had to get to this point. And I understand that we have more African-American elected officials than any other state, but I also understand that we've not had an African-American statewide office holder, you know, since 1870 and that was an appointed U.S. congressman.

So, I understand the significance of our being - reaching this milestone. But also understand that what's important to citizens in Mississippi is not necessarily what color you are, it's can you make a difference in my life? Because actually I'm proud to be an African-American. I'm proud also that we help to change life.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about that because one of your ads speaks of that. But before I do, I do want to ask you why you think it is that there have not been any African-American statewide nominees? Two African-Americans ran as independents for governor of Mississippi, but there has not been before you an African-American elected statewide or a major party nominee. And I just wanted like to ask you why you think that is?

DUPREE: Well, I mean, you know, we've had an African-American to win the party nomination as an insurance commissioner, treasurer, and lieutenant governor. So, we've had it happen. But what we've not had though is an inordinate amount of African-Americans running. I mean, we've had three to run. I guess I'm the fourth to run for statewide office that I could remember for a statewide office position. You know, you've got to have people running for the position in order to make it happen. So, if you don't run you can't win.

MARTIN: Why did you decide to get into politics, by the way? And I also want to mention, you have a very compelling personal story. You were a teen husband, a teenage father. You worked in retail before you ran for office and in real estate. What caused you to want to get into politics?

DUPREE: Well, you know, I didn't really want to get into politics, Michel. I mean, to be real honest with you, I was appointed, my wife and I, even though we were very young, having children, was president of our PTA and PTO at that time. And I was appointed to the Hattiesburg school board. Public service just makes me so good. And we opened up our own business, Johnny DuPree Realty, to help people get into affordable housing because we grew up in a shotgun house and I knew that house ownership changes lives not only adults but of children.

I mean, I would go to bed at night when we would do things like that and I just felt so good. And someone mentioned well, you know, what about running for, you know, supervisor. And I thought and we prayed about it and pondered over it, talked to other people. And I realized after doing it and being elected that this is where God wanted me to be. And so, we continued that process, been elected to the county board of commissioners and then they saw a need in the city and I decided to run for governor three terms ago.

MARTIN: You were dramatically under funded in this race, at least compared to your runoff opponent. He reportedly devoted a million dollars to the race. You spent half of that. Why do you think you won?

DUPREE: Well, that day when we won, Michel, we won because we have a great staff.

MARTIN: Well, you won because you got the most votes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So, we understand that but why do you think you prevailed?

DUPREE: Well, I don't make it that simply because I got more votes. What I was trying to say though is that, you know, we have a great group of people who staffed this campaign. Even greater people who were volunteering in this campaign, who took hold of the message, who believed that we can - we not I - we can help change Mississippi for the better and could make Mississippi first. And it resonated and people grabbed hold to it and that's what happened.

You know, all of my elections that I can remember, the only one that I was that I raised more money was the one when I was unopposed. All the other ones I had opposition. They raised more money than me. And we've always put down a grassroots campaign, meeting people where they are. And I think that's what people want nowadays.

They want you to hear them, and that's what we did. We listened and we talked and we traveled. You know, we put 47,000 miles on my car in 14 months of going across Mississippi talking and listening to people.

MARTIN: We're speaking with Johnny DuPree. He is the mayor of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. On Tuesday, he became the first African-American to win a gubernatorial primary or a major party primary in that state in modern times. And I'll just play a short clip from one of your television ads. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

DUPREE: I'm here to talk to you about color - green. Better jobs mean more money for Mississippi. And we do that with better schools and safer streets. More green means a better tomorrow.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Johnny Dupree, governor.

MARTIN: And that's kind of a sly way of a clever way of addressing the obvious. But, you know, Mississippi does have a history of how - could I put it - kind of racially polarized voting. For example, on the last 10 presidential elections, the state has broken for Republicans in part because of racially polarized reporting except for one. There's only one presidential election in which the state went Democratic, and that was Jimmy Carter. And that was because sufficient numbers of white voters moved into the Democratic column. And so, I just have to ask you how do you think you're going to transcend that history?

DUPREE: Well, you know, when I was elected mayor of the city of Hattiesburg of which is the fourth largest city in Mississippi, we have a voter needs population of 57 percent white. But they rewarded me, both white and black, by electing me and giving me an opportunity and a chance, if you will, to see if we had what it took to move Hattiesburg forward. And they elected me two more times after that. I think that the numbers (unintelligible) even now that we were able to get crossover votes.

You know, all politics is local and you have people voting for presidents that they don't know, they hadn't met, they don't have any idea what he stands for. It's different in Mississippi. You know, half the state knows who I am and now the other half knows who I am. You know, I'm not an unknown and I think that's what people gravitate to.

MARTIN: Well, the election campaign has in effect started. So, what is your best argument about why you're the better candidate in contrast to Lieutenant Governor Phil Bryant, who also has a record, and the incumbent Haley Barbour can't run again after two terms is a popular governor. What's your argument for why you're a better choice than this also a known quantity?

DUPREE: Well, the best argument here is, you know, I'm on the ground, Michel. If there's a cut in services or taxes are raised, people do that. Those that do that, they do it and then they go home.

But guess who has to work within that system? Who has to come up with the way to continue to bring services to people - the people who run the school system, county commissioners, mayors and city council people. We have to work through that process and we've worked through that process in Hattiesburg in the last 10 years.

And I did it by not raising taxes due to this economic downturn, by not laying off anybody, but by increasing - the employment rose by 1,000 this year, 1,000 last year, 7,000 over the 10 years that I've been here. We're different because I don't govern in a vacuum. I don't govern unilaterally. I govern by putting people around the table, making them a part of the process.

MARTIN: You know, you talk about, you know, the business climate, which is critical to, you know, attracting business. But unfortunately, Mississippi has been in the news recently because of the murder of James Craig Anderson in June. A group of white teens allegedly ran him down in Jackson in what the local prosecutor has called a hate crime.

Do you believe that this incident says anything about the state of relationships in Mississippi today? Does it say something that business leaders ought to be concerned about if they're considering Mississippi as a place to bring jobs?

DUPREE: No. You know, our heart, our soul goes out to the Anderson family. You know, my wife and I immediately started praying for the family. This is a heinous crime. The sad thing about it is there are people who commit hate crimes, not only in Mississippi, but they commit hate crimes all across the United States.

That's not - again, we're not isolated with hate crimes here. But I believe the vast majority of the people in Mississippi are good people who want the same things, who are goodhearted people and there are isolated incidents like this that happen across America. You know, they don't just happen in Mississippi. They happen across America.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that and I thank you for being so generous with your time on such an important day. I should mention that we caught up with you just after your victory in the runoff, so you're still obviously in a very busy period.

But before we let you go, I did want to just ask you, if I could, about the Confederate flag issue, which Mississippi remains the only state flag or has the only state flag which still incorporates the battle flag of the Confederacy. I know there was a referendum to change it in 2001, which was soundly defeated by a vote of 64 to about 37 percent, as I recall - 64, 36 percent, as I recall, which amazingly happens to be kind of the demographic breakdown of the state, interestingly enough. And I just wanted to ask, what is your thought about this? Is this still something to talk about or what's your thought about it?

DUPREE: Michel, I think we'll always talk about it because the people I talk about it mostly are people that are commentators or news reporters or whatever. I mean, those people...

MARTIN: Who don't live there.

DUPREE: Who don't live here.

MARTIN: I hear you.

DUPREE: You know, the people in Mississippi that I talk to, we go around the state. They've never brought up the flag. Is it an issue? Probably so. But let me tell you what an issue is. Issue is jobs, issue is education, issue is health care. The issue is making sure our children are educated. Those are the issues in Mississippi. We got to solve those issues, so we can get to those other issues that may not necessarily change lives, but maybe change the image of the state. And we'll work on those things. But right now, I want to work on what changes lives in Mississippi.

MARTIN: Johnny DuPree is the mayor of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He is the Democratic Party's nominee in the Mississippi governor's race. He was kind enough to join us from his office in Hattiesburg. I do want to mention, we would certainly love to hear from Lieutenant Governor Phil Bryant, who's a Republican nominee, as well, as the race continues.

Mayor DuPree, thank you so much for joining us, and congratulations once again.

DUPREE: Michel, I do appreciate you all giving me this time and pray to God for you and your organization.

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