By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
RICHLAND – For Dave Dennis, it is the end of another long campaign day that included speaking to a civic club in Grenada and a “meet and greet” at a home in Duck Hill before the final stop at a cookout in Richland – in the heart of his opponent’s political base in Rankin County.
Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, a major stumbling block to Dennis capturing the Republican gubernatorial nomination on Aug. 2, is from Rankin County. Bryant is expected to parlay support from Rankin – the county that by a wide margin traditionally turns out the most Republican voters – into a new home in the Governor’s Mansion.
Yet more than 200 Rankin Countians attended the recent hamburger cookout for Dennis at the Richland Community Center. Three of the sponsors for the event were outgoing Republican Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Lester Spell, who declined an interview, but made it clear he was a Dennis supporter, Rankin County Tax Assessor John Sullivan, who is unopposed for re-election, and Richland Mayor Mark Scarborough.
Dennis, a Gulf Coast businessman, who has never run for political office, makes a typical stump speech – perhaps shorter than some – and then descends into the crowd to meet people.
That probably takes longer than normal because Dennis does not just say hello. He asks about family, talks at length to a woman about her son’s job opportunities. It is rare when he does not make a connection beyond the typical greeting and “vote for me” handshake.
“With Dave what you see is what you get,” said Chevis Swetman, chairman and CEO of the Biloxi-based Peoples Bank. “He has always been that way. He is always there. He is tireless in trying to make a difference for the state and for the Gulf Coast. I don’t see how he has the time.”
Even Dennis’ most optimistic supporters would not predict a victory in Rankin County, but he is leaving no stone unturned as he tries to duplicate the feat of his friend and fellow contractor, the late Kirk Fordice, who came from the business community to capture the Governor’s Mansion in 1991 against better-financed, front-running opposition.
After Dennis finishes talking with all who will remain to meet with him, he finally sits down to eat a now-cold hamburger. But one last visitor asks if she can sit down to talk with him. She asks about Dennis’ campaign. He said his campaign represents what the Founding Fathers intended – for someone to enter the public sector from the private sector and then “step back.”
“We represent the community. We represent business. We represent helping people,” he said. “That is not rhetoric. That is what we have been doing on the ground for an awful long time.”
Dennis, owner of Specialty Contractors, a commercial construction company, has toyed with the idea of running for governor for some time. He was prepared to run in 2003 before traveling to Washington to meet with then-lobbyist Haley Barbour, who indicated to Dennis and his wife, Jane, that he planned to run. At that point, Dennis stepped aside.
“I am glad he ran,” Dennis said, adding he does not care who is governor, but said he only wants it to be someone with the “skill set” to sell the state to business interests and to help Mississippi advance.
On philosophical issues, Dennis and Bryant are not that much different. They both tout their conservative credentials, and both have courted the Tea Party for support on such issues as preventing illegal immigrants from entering the state.
While Dennis has never run for office, he has been involved in politics for a long time. As a former chair of BIPEC (Business and Industry Political Education Committee), Dennis was a successful advocate for civil justice reform. He also has been a prominent supporter of candidates, including Fordice.
Dennis, 58, is an Atmore, Ala., native and an Auburn graduate. While there he was on the football team one year as an undersize center. He admits that he attended Auburn because that’s where his future wife, the former Jane Rumpf, was going to school.
“We started dating in the ninth grade because her father would not let her date in the eighth,” he is fond of saying.
After the pair graduated from Auburn, Dennis worked for a short while with the Blue Bird School Bus Company before moving to the Gulf Coast to work in Jane’s father’s business. In 1985, they purchased the company.
Dennis has been active in numerous community and statewide organizations. He has chaired the Mississippi Economic Council’s Leadership Mississippi program and headed various civic and charitable groups on the Gulf Coast. He previously served three terms as chair of the New Orleans Federal Reserve.
On this particular night in Rankin County, his wife joins Dennis as he finishes his cold hamburger. Dennis said that when he started the campaign he and Jane agreed they would have fun and visit parts of Mississippi they had not been previously.
But Dennis said they also agreed “to make it successful.”
They appear to be having fun, and they are certainly traveling the state. Time will tell whether they are successful.