Johnny DuPree’s victory in last week’s Democratic primary runoff was not a complete surprise, but that didn’t make it any less historic. As the state’s first black nominee of a major party for governor since Reconstruction, the Hattiesburg mayor has achieved a singular distinction.
But there was something else about the campaign between DuPree and Bill Luckett that was different. It was remarkably civil in tone, a distinct departure from most political races these days.
Not that the candidates didn’t assert their own unique characteristics and qualifications and contrast them with their opponent’s. Luckett touted his business development experience in Clarksdale as superior preparation for the governorship to DuPree’s extensive experience in local government, and DuPree responded that he had the track record of accomplishments in elective office that Luckett lacked.
They agreed on most issues, particularly the need for early childhood education and public school improvement. And they both clearly understood they would need the other candidate’s supporters in a general election challenge of Republican front-runner Phil Bryant, which was an incentive to avoid the kind of personal attacks that would damage those prospects. But the fact that they conducted a spirited campaign while still acting like adults is a tribute to both men.
It could also be said that Billy Hewes and Tate Reeves disagreed very little on the issues in their Republican campaign for lieutenant governor, and yet they still engaged in the kind of acrimonious back and forth that comes across as childish and turns people off to the process.
To his credit, Bryant hasn’t used attack ads of the type that distort an opponent’s record or impugn his character. Of course, it’s usually the candidate running behind who “goes negative” – witness the last-minute ads in the GOP treasurer’s runoff from the Lee Yancey camp going after Lynn Fitch, the eventual winner – and Bryant has been well in front of everyone else since the campaign began.
It was clear, too, in the Democratic primary that Luckett’s strategy was to run against Bryant, not DuPree, and the tone likely would have taken a different turn in the general election if Luckett had won.
DuPree, on the other hand, has insisted he’ll be talking about himself and no one else. Naturally there will be occasions when he will need to contrast himself with Bryant, and his supporters will expect that of him. But it will be a surprise if DuPree’s criticism of Bryant on the issues extends to what so often happens in political campaigns – the attempt to portray the opponent as a lousy human being. Voters can tell the difference, and they’ve had enough of the personal stuff.
There are significant policy differences between Bryant and DuPree, and those should get a good airing for the voters to decide which they prefer. Challenging the positions or records of an opponent, when done honestly and in context, is fair game in a campaign.
Maybe it’s naive to think so, but it’s possible to envision a Bryant-DuPree campaign that avoids the gutter. What a gift to the voters that would be.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal