By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
BILOXI – Individual experiences and how those experiences could help the state were stressed more than policy differences during a debate Friday of four of the state’s gubernatorial candidates.
Republicans Phil Bryant and Dave Dennis and Democrats Johnny DuPree and Bill Luckett highlighted what they said are their “unique skill sets” during an hour-long debate at the Mississippi Press Association’s annual convention.
Bryant, the state’s lieutenant governor, spoke of his political experiences and often referred to how he had worked with outgoing Republican Gov. Haley Barbour on economic development projects. Gulf Coast businessman Dennis, who owns a construction company, said “there would be a huge leadership void” when Barbour leaves office, and his private sector experience would make him the best person to fill it.
Dennis pointed out neither Barbour nor Republican Kirk Fordice, who served in the 1990s, had held other political offices before being elected governor.
“People are looking for private sector leadership – looking for people who can solve problems,” Dennis said.
On the Democratic side, Luckett, a Clarksdale businessman/attorney, like Dennis, has never run for public office. He also highlighted his private sector experience. He said his internationally known blues club and restaurant in Clarksdale helped turn around the Delta town.
He said on most nights it is difficult to find a parking space in downtown Clarksdale.
“Ten years ago you could have fired a bullet (down the street) and not worry about hitting a car or a person,” he said, adding Mississippi has many serious problems the next governor must address.
DuPree said he had both the political and business experience. The Hattiesburg mayor said while the state and national economies were struggling, his city added 1,000 jobs this past year. As mayor, DuPree said he has succeeded in dealing with the Katrina aftermath and with the poor economy and had cut the size of city government by improving efficiencies.
Bryant said he just didn’t talk about what he was going to do, but that he actually had a record. He said during the past four years the Legislature had passed six “targeted tax cuts” for businesses that had created jobs. He said the tax cut for the furniture industry had created 800 cut-and-sew jobs.
He said that is what he would continue to do as governor.
There were some policy differences that came to the surface during the debate.
For instance, when asked about charter schools, Republicans Dennis and Bryant expressed support. Dennis said “competition helps” lead to improvements in any endeavor.
Democrats DuPree and Luckett said they oppose them.
DuPree said the state should take the best aspects of charter schools and apply them to all schools.
The two Democrats did not take as hard a line on illegal immigration as did Bryant who has pushed for aggressive state legislation on the issue.
Dennis said, “We run a construction company, and we employ legal Americans,” adding that he also supported the hiring of any person legal to work in the country. But he said paying a fair wage made it easier to find legal workers
DuPree and Luckett said they support securing the borders, but said the enforcement of immigration laws is a federal issue.
All four candidates said they support an initiative slated to be on the November ballot that would prohibit the government from taking private property for the use of another private entity.
Barbour opposes the initiative because he said it would harm economic development efforts.
On that issue, Bryant disagrees with the outgoing governor.
“A willing buyer and a willing seller is the best way to manage securing property for economic development purposes,” he said.
The party primary elections are slated for Aug. 2 with the general election scheduled for November. Other candidates are running in both party primaries, though, the four at Friday’s MPA debate are generally considered the top contenders.