DuPree builds bridges, makes history in Hattiesburg

By Bobby Harrison | NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

HATTIESBURG – The bright lights of the historic and ornate Saenger Theater were lit up on a recent night on Forrest Street across from the Hattiesburg City Hall as the City Council celebrated the opening of a refurbished board room.
John Brown, assistant to Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree, explained that part of the remodeling includes installing screens and computers to display the council agenda for the members and for the public and eliminate the need for paper documents. The material also will be available online.
“It enhances citizen participation and the accountability of city government,” said Brown before a routine council meeting began.
After that meeting, the council, local government officials and various other people walked out of City Hall on to a closed-down Forrest Street for a party, complete with food and refreshments – all donated – to celebrate the opening of the new Hattiesburg City Council Board Room.
As an unseasonably hot day turned into a breezy, cloudy and chilly evening on Forrest Street, Ward 2 Council member Deborah Delgado smiled when she was asked how DuPree has done as mayor.
“I think he has done OK,” she said. “Certainly as the first African-American to hold this position, he started out with many challenges. He has found a way to work well with everybody.”
DuPree was not on hand for the ceremony. He was campaigning in another part of the state as he attempts another challenge – to be the first African-American elected governor of Mississippi since the late 1800s. His August victory in the Democratic gubernatorial primary was a first for a black candidate.
But he faces an uphill battle. He is a decided underdog as he vies to succeed Republican Haley Barbour, who is constitutionally prohibited from seeking a third term.
While DuPree was not present for the celebration, the soon-to-be paperless board room coincides with what DuPree said has been one of the goals of city government – to use technology and other efficiencies to hold down costs during the economic downturn. He has said the city has not cut services or laid off employees during the economic crunch.
Hattiesburg’s unemployment rate of 9 percent is high but below the state and national averages. Plus, Hattiesburg’s per capita income also is higher than the state average.
Some say Hattiesburg has built-in advantages, thanks to the stable economic impact of the University of Southern Mississippi. DuPree cites recruiting 1,000 jobs to the city last year. Barbour also takes credit for the same recruitment effort.
In recent years, the city has received numerous awards and honors, including being named the state’s healthiest large city, 14th best in nation for jobs growth by NewGeography.com, ninth best to operate a small business by CNN/Money.com and one of the top 100 places to retire.
Public service bio
DuPree is in his third term as the mayor of the state’s fourth largest city. Before then, he was elected three times as a county supervisor.
DuPree also is a real estate broker and former longtime Sears employee, who was serving as a sales manager when he resigned to open his own real estate company.
He got his start in public service when then-Mayor G.D. Williamson appointed him to the Hattiesburg School Board in 1987. DuPree continues to stress education and has formed a Mayor’s Leadership Youth Council to involve young people in civic activities.
DuPree lost the first mayoral election to incumbent Ed Morgan, but in 2001 defeated Morgan, who had switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.
At the time, DuPree’s victory received some statewide attention as it is still uncommon in Mississippi for a black candidate to win election in a contest where a majority of the voters are white.
In 2000, according to the U.S. Census, the city had 22,365 white residents and 21,220 black residents. Now, based on the latest census information, the city has 24,391 black residents and 19,266 white residents.
“Johnny ran a clean campaign,” said Morgan, who is now chair of the state Tax Commission. “He didn’t dwell on the negative.”
Morgan added, “I think Johnny has done a good job. I don’t want to sound like sour grapes – our administration versus his administration. He has been honest and hard-working and has been a good mayor…
“We would certainly have philosophical and policy differences.”
Street concerns
Lee Jarrell Davis, a former state representative who ran for mayor in 2001 in the Republican primary, said he has been disappointed with the upkeep of city streets.
“The thing I don’t like is he didn’t put enough money on fixing the streets,” Davis said. “… He has done a little good recruiting industry. I do think we ought to do more about our infrastructure here.”
State Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, whose district includes a portion of Hattiesburg, said he has been impressed with the job DuPree has done as mayor. He said he is particularly impressed with the renovations to Hattiesburg’s downtown, which is large by Mississippi standards.
A walk through downtown reveals few vacant buildings and numerous spruced-up buildings in a downtown that has been named a historic district.
“I think he has done a fine job,” said Fillingane, a Bryant supporter. “The problem is that running a medium-size city is not like running a state.”
Brown said he can remember only one DuPree veto of council action in the six years he has served as part of city government. Delgado, a Democrat, said of the disagreements, “We work them out.
“We try to work together to get things done,” she added. “When we disagree, we sit down and talk. That is not to say we always leave happy. But we all represent the people of Hattiesburg and want to do what is best for them.”
DuPree said when he served as supervisor, city and county officials were constantly fighting. Upon being elected mayor, he set up a retreat, complete with a therapist, for city and county officials to work out their differences.
He often jokes that he doesn’t know if the city and county officials left the retreat liking each other any more, but they left understanding it was to the benefit of the residents of both Hattiesburg and Forrest County for them to work together.
“We have a good working relationship,” said District 1 Supervisor David Hogan, a Republican. “We work closely together. I have known the mayor all my life. His mother worked for my father. She helped raise us.
“He has done a good job as mayor of Hattiesburg. If elected, I think he would do the same for the state.”
Longtime Forrest County Chancery Clerk Jimmy Havard, who has recently switched to the Republican Party, said, “Johnny was an outstanding member of Board of Supervisors. He achieved a lot for his district. I enjoyed serving with him very much.
“He has made an outstanding mayor, but I am not going to tell you who I am voting for.”
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com