Time and tide against Dem hopefuls for governor

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 10, 2011

OXFORD — The Mississippi Democratic Party has likely never enjoyed two prospective nominees for governor with more experience or class. This is true despite a party structure in the state that continues to be in disarray and a nation still in recoil over the expansionist policies of President Barack Obama.

In Mississippi, struggle for party control is largely divided into racially identifiable camps.

Most white Democrats are progressives (as opposed to liberals). They believe the highest duty of government is to be of service to the people. They range from the very wealthy to a smattering of blue collar, pro-labor workers. Pragmatism is their motto.

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For years, they’ve been in a not-so-public smack-down with a consortium of black Democrats, many of whom are mentally stuck in the 1970s. They are power politicians and government hangers-on. Governing, in a power politician’s perspective, is strictly an “us vs. them” proposition. It’s about intimidation. It’s about retribution. It’s about bringing home the bacon to reward your friends. It’s about leaving everyone else in your dust.

This is overbroad, of course. There are pragmatists in the ranks of black Democrats. One of them is Johnny DuPree, the successful mayor of a growing and vibrant Hattiesburg. DuPree, 58, has lived his life centered on the family values Republicans are always talking about.

Work, church and family were joined by another priority, public service, for Dupree for the first time in 1987 when he was appointed to the Hattiesburg Public School Board. Rewarded by that experience, DuPree ran for and was elected to the Forrest County Board of Supervisors 20 years ago and has been elected the Hub City’s mayor three times.

When he talks, as he did at the Overby Center for Southern Politics and Journalism at Ole Miss last week, it’s clear that DuPree, though not as polished or gifted as some speakers, is the kind of leader who seeks the cause of a problem and develops a consensus approach to seeking a solution. He doesn’t make broad, sweeping promises. There’s nothing self-aggrandizing about him.

And the same is true of Bill Luckett, who faces DuPree on Aug. 2 primary ballots. Unlike DuPree, Luckett, a white attorney from Clarksdale, has never sought elective office. His quest is to translate the sense of community that has developed around his Delta home to the state as a whole.

The “miracle of Clarksdale” is widely known, but perhaps not widely enough. For years, Luckett spent his weekends on his hobby, restoring homes. That progressed to buildings. Others, including Luckett’s client and friend actor Morgan Freeman, joined the effort. They opened Ground Zero, which has become a global showcase for live blues music, and Madidi, a fine dining restaurant, on the mostly empty street of a town that was dying before their eyes.

Today those businesses have been joined by at least a dozen more. And something unimaginable has occurred: It’s hard to find a parking place.

Now while the struggle for Democratic Party leadership in Mississippi has broken out largely along racial lines in recent years, it’s noteworthy that voter support for DuPree and for Luckett at the retail level has not. Both draw diverse crowds. That’s a high compliment to both men and to the intellect of voters who are showing they’re more interested in the future than in the past.

But all of this comes up against a Tea Party mood in Mississippi that mirrors the rest of the nation. Democrats will send DuPree or Luckett to face the Republican nominee and independent candidates in the general election. The majority sentiment in this state is conservative and unless they are split among the Republican nominee and independents who will posture themselves on the extreme right, things look grim for Democrats.

The “get government off our backs” crowd will depict the Democratic nominee as an Obama clone. It was less than a year ago that former District 1 U.S. Rep. Travis Childers, a Democrat, was unseated by Republican nominee Alan Nunnelee. It wasn’t because Childers was liberal or ineffective — but because he belonged to the “party of Pelosi.” Although the pendulum of opinion swings faster in politics than ever before, there’s no sign that sentiment has ebbed.

Despite their ongoing fracas at party headquarters — which also shows no sign of abating — any Democratic nominee in this state would have a big hill to climb. But with party disunity and with state Republicans riding high on the tenure of Haley Barbour and a more effective organization, it’s likely a hill too far.

In a way, that’s a shame. DuPree and Luckett are good guys.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail cmitchell43@yahoo.com.