Black Democrat faces tough race for Mississippi governor

JACKSON — After making history this week as the first black candidate to win a major-party nomination for Mississippi governor, Democrat Johnny DuPree now faces the tough reality of trying to win a general election against a better-known, better-funded GOP candidate in a strongly Republican state.

DuPree, the mayor of Mississippi’s third-largest city, Hattiesburg, said he’s not daunted because he has usually been outspent in campaigns. He said he plans to continue running a race-neutral campaign focused on jobs and education.

“We’re in the race to try to make a difference for the citizens of Mississippi,” the 57-year-old DuPree said after winning the Democratic primary runoff Tuesday night. “Our first priority is not the (campaign) finances.”

An expert on black political participation said Wednesday that DuPree has little chance of defeating the Republican nominee, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, in the Nov. 8 general election.

“My guess is if the odds-makers were putting odds on this, it would probably be something like 100-to1,” said David Bositis, senior political analyst for the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “Mississippi isn’t ready to elect a black candidate to major statewide office.”

Bositis, who has spent more than two decades researching voting trends, said Mississippi is one of several Deep South states that has developed re-segregated electoral patterns, “with the Republican Party being the white people’s party and pretty much just African-Americans being the Democratic Party.”

Mississippi’s current governor, Republican Haley Barbour, is limited to two terms and couldn’t seek re-election this year.

Republicans have held the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion four of the past five terms, and the state has voted Republican in every presidential race since 1980.

With a population that’s 37 percent black, Mississippi now has more black elected officials than any state in the nation, according to the joint center.

However, Mississippi hasn’t had a black statewide official since Reconstruction. Decades ago, black citizens faced threats, violence and poll taxes for trying to exercise their right to vote. The political structure started to change and black voter participation began to increase after the federal civil rights and voting rights acts became law in the mid-1960s.

Marvin King, a political science professor at the University of Mississippi, said DuPree’s win this week is significant.

“Even in Mississippi, you can have a statewide candidate who is black, who won a nomination, who earned his way to the top of a ticket,” King said Wednesday.

Bryant, the one-term lieutenant governor, said that when he called DuPree to congratulate him Tuesday night, he noted the significance of a black candidate winning a major-party nomination for governor.

“I told him, there are children all across this state that look to him as an example now,” Bryant, 56, of Brandon, said Wednesday. “I think it’s a very historic moment. Now, we disagree on some issues and we’ll have a debate about that.”

Aaron Barksdale, a Mississippi voter who describes himself as a Libertarian, posted Wednesday night on DuPree’s campaign page on Facebook: “Just remember: A vote BECAUSE he is Black is just as RACIST as voting AGAINST him because he’s Black.”

DuPree campaign manager Sam Hall posted a response that said “voting for or against someone because of their skin color is a ridiculous way to pick a candidate. That’s why the only time we talk about race in this campaign is when the media asks about it or someone brings it up like this.”

DuPree leads a city that is roughly half black, half white. He does not dwell on race as an issue in the governor’s election, although he has acknowledged in interviews that it’s a concern for some voters. He said the color he likes to discuss is green, as in money generated from job creation.

DuPree defeated Bill Luckett, a white Clarksdale attorney and developer, in the runoff.

Luckett immediately endorsed DuPree, saying the mayor has shown a desire to help all people in the state.

Independent Will Oatis of Silver Creek is also running for governor. Rival factions of the Reform Party want to put a candidate in the race.

Barksdale, 31, of Ocean Springs, told The Associated Press in a phone interview that he posted the Facebook comment because he got tired of people treating him as if he’s racist because he didn’t vote for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008, when Obama was elected the first black U.S. president.

“I have nothing against Johnny DuPree. He did a lot of good for Hattiesburg,” Barksdale said. “But in 2008, it was the largest black voter turnout in history and it was all because Obama was there.”

Barksdale said he voted for one of the Republicans who lost to Bryant in the Aug. 2 primary, and he doesn’t yet know which candidate he’ll support in November.

Two other high-profile black politicians ran for Mississippi governor as independents in the 1970s. Charles Evers, brother of slain civil-rights leader Medgar Evers, ran in 1971. State Sen. Henry Kirksey ran in 1975. Neither had to go through a primary.

Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press