By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – Johnny DuPree admits that when he looks at his background and that of the other major gubernatorial candidates, “I probably should not be running.
“…But in a sense I probably should be running because I can understand what people go through and can relate.”
DuPree and his older brother and younger sister were raised by a single mother. The mayor of Hattiesburg recounts that his young mother traveled to Fort Benning, Ga., to be with her husband, a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. That is where Johnny DuPree was born Nov. 18, 1953. But his mother returned to Mississippi – to Hattiesburg – with her three children and without her husband.
Johnny DuPree was an infant then. He later made contact with his father as a high-schooler.
“Remember commodities – the forerunner to Food Stamps…. Powdered milk, powdered cheese. That is what we grew up on,” he said. “That is why my mother worked three or four jobs – to make that work.”
At age 8, DuPree said he was delivering the Hattiesburg American newspaper. As a young boy delivering the newspaper he came to realize that the homes where he delivered papers were nicer if the people were educated and had a mother and father in the home.
Yet DuPree said his mother instilled in her children “we can achieve. We can do better.”
To do that, he said, she stressed church, hard work and education.
“We were in the church every time the door opened,” he said.
By any definition, Hattie Dupree was successful in instilling in her middle son – Johnny L. DuPree – that he could do better.
DuPree is in his third term as mayor of Hattiesburg. When the African-American Democrat was elected, the city was majority white.
He is hoping he can become the first black governor of Mississippi since Reconstruction.
“I honestly have faith in Mississippi,” DuPree said recently. “I have faith people will look at the records and see who the best candidate is.”
DuPree says all of the people running for governor are “good men” and want the best for the state, but says, matter of factly in his deep baritone voice, that he is the best candidate. He said he brings a unique set of skills to the race. He served three terms as Forrest County supervisor before being elected mayor. Before then, he was on the Hattiesburg School Board.
Plus, he touts that “private sector” experience that is so important to some voters and some candidates. He worked for Sears, rising to the position of sales manager, and, he said, had an opportunity manage a store, but would have had to leave Hattiesburg.
Instead, he and his wife, the former Johnlece Jennings of Hattiesburg, started their own real estate company.
He said he continues to keep his license current “because one day somebody may decide that they don’t want me to be a public servant anymore.”
On the campaign trail, DePree touts Hattiesburg – where he said 1,000 new jobs were created last year, the population is growing and the city was recently recognized for being the healthiest city of more than 10,000 in the state.
Of DuPree, fellow mayor Parker Wiseman of Starkville said in an endorsement letter, “I know Mayor Johnny DuPree understands what is needed to create jobs, improve education, and improve the quality of life for Mississippians. We need someone with these skills to make Mississippi first.”
Wiseman added he has seen up close DuPree’s effectiveness in Hattiesburg and as former president of the Mississippi Municipal League.
Besides touting his record on the campaign trail, DuPree also relies on his engaging personality and uplifting story. He makes no bones about the fact that when he at age 19 and his wife at 17 were married, “We were pregnant.”
But he took the lessons that his single mother taught him and the observation he made as an 8-year-old paperboy to build the classic American dream for his family. One daughter is a professor at the University of South Alabama in Mobile and the other is a teacher in the Jackson Public School System.
Both can be seen at times on the campaign trail – as well as the DuPree’s only grandchild – 4-year-old Chandler. At a recent campaign stop, Chandler seemed more interested in riding an elevator than hearing his grandfather talk about the importance of placing more of an emphasis on education and in improving the state’s health care.
The key, DuPree said, is better prioritizing limited state funds by doing multiple-year budgets and by bringing all the parties to the table to craft a compromise. That is what he said he has been able to do in Hattiesburg.
At a recent DuPree gathering in downtown Jackson, the candidate got out of the car, wearing a light-colored summer suit, but no tie.
He said at the last stop, a man said he liked his tie, so, “I gave it to him.
“That happens all the time. Whenever I give one tie away, I get 10 back in return.”
DuPree would say the blessings in his life do not stop with neckties. But whether they stop at the Governor’s Mansion remains to be seen.