OPINION: Dennis maps his campaign of contrasts

Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant is the current front-runner for the 2011 Republican gubernatorial nomination, but Dave Dennis is the guy who won’t make it easy for him.
Dennis is a Gulf Coast businessman and civic leader who plans to run a campaign that clearly will contrast his strengths and background with Bryant’s. It will be a repeat of a recurring Mississippi political confrontation over the years: The heretofore non-politician emerging from the private sector to take on the career governmental candidate.
Examples over the last three decades or so – all on the Republican side – include Gil Carmichael, Leon Bramlett, Jack Reed and Kirk Fordice. Haley Barbour doesn’t quite fit the mold because he was so heavily identified as a political figure when he ran against Ronnie Musgrove, even though he had never held elective office.
The clearest parallel with Dennis is Fordice, the first to successfully run that type of campaign for governor and, like Dennis, a contractor. Fordice was a loyal Republican volunteer and financial contributor but had never run for office when he defeated the sitting Republican state auditor, Pete Johnson, and then the incumbent Democrat Ray Mabus. The primary win against the front-runner Johnson was an upset, and bears some similarities to a likely Bryant-Dennis matchup.
Fordice, Dennis reminds people, formally announced his candidacy for re-election at Dennis’ home in Gulfport in 1995.
Another similarity is that Fordice, like Dennis, was not a native Mississippian nor a state university graduate. Fordice was from Memphis, though his business life was spent in Vicksburg after graduation from Purdue University. Dennis grew up in Alabama and graduated from Auburn, but has lived on the Mississippi Coast for most of his adult life.
Similarities end when it comes to personalities. Fordice was brusque and often painfully blunt; Dennis is more relaxed, measured and congenial.
But clearly the messages will be much the same: What the state needs is somebody who understands business and economic development and can talk the language “CEO to CEO.” The conservative fiscal discipline necessary for the tough choices in what Dennis refers to as the “post-Haley” era can best be guided by someone with payroll-meeting, expense-reducing experience in the private sector, as well as Dennis’ understanding of the financial system after three terms as chairman of the New Orleans Federal Reserve Board.
These will be the foundational elements of his campaign, it became clear in his Tupelo address last week to a Cellular South Networking at Noon audience and in a meeting with the Daily Journal editorial board afterward.
Dennis’ resume’ as a private sector leader is impressive. He has led a variety of civic, charitable and economic development endeavors on the Coast, and has been active in the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort. Statewide, he chairs the Mississippi Economic Council’s Leadership Mississippi program, which has put him in touch with a wide variety of emerging and established community leaders around the state.
Some of his experience is a mixed bag, at least when it comes to how legislators will regard him. He chaired BIPEC, the Business and Industry Political Education Committee, whose publicized ratings on individual legislators have been a source of consternation to many lawmakers. But that, of course, is not the constituency he needs to get elected.
Dennis’ donor base will be those in the business community who see him as the most seamless transition from a Barbour administration they have felt close to and comfortable with. The fact that there may be two candidates from the Gulf Coast running for the top two state offices in the GOP primaries – state Sen. Billy Hewes of Gulfport is a likely candidate for lieutenant governor – won’t hinder his fund-raising or electoral chances, Dennis believes.
His private sector bonafides aside, it can’t be said that political ambition is something that just hit Dennis recently. He acknowledged a desire to run for governor in 2003, but backed off when it became clear Barbour intended to run. That and lavish praise for him from Dennis will be remembered by an incumbent governor who is generally assumed not to view Bryant as his ideal successor.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com.

Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal