Election likely to seal Mississippi as a solidly ‘red state’

Published 1:50 am Sunday, October 30, 2011

OXFORD — Poor Johnny, we hardly knew ye.

Eleven years ago, a Democrat from neighboring Tennessee was running for president. Mississippi had a Democrat, Ronnie Musgrove, in the Governor’s Mansion.

Would Musgrove embrace Al Gore, try to move Mississippi into the “blue” column as Bill Clinton’s vice president sought to ascend?

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Not hardly.

There was a disconnect between national Democrats and Mississippi Democrats then and it has only widened since.

If memory serves, Musgrove agreed to meet Gore once for a handshake at the airport as Gore was passing through. No high-fives. No cheering crowds. Just tacit recognition that both called themselves Democrats.

This year the Mississippi Democrat who has been seeking traction in the race to follow Haley Barbour has been Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree.

His campaign has been lackluster and hamstrung.

And who should show up from the national party ranks for a handshake? Debbie Wasserman Schultz. If hearing Al Gore’s name is like a fingernail on a chalkboard to most Mississippians — and it is — then Rep. Schultz’s name is like 10 fingernails on 10 chalkboards. The chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who hails from Florida, stands proudly for activism on reproductive freedom, gay rights, gun control and a bevy of other topics. Her hugs and kisses whistle stop had approximately the same value for DuPree as a KKK endorsement would have for Republican Presidential hopeful Rick Perry of Texas. A lot more harm than good.

Looking at his record, DuPree fits well into the fold of a traditional Mississippi Democrat. In other words, he is a pragmatist, a fiscal and on most fronts a social conservative. For instance, his endorsement of Obamacare is tepid. He believes government should help people, he says, but the plan needs work.

A pattern of his tenure as Hattiesburg mayor has been to put people with competing views or opposing ideas in a room, telling them to come out when they have a solution. Consensus governance doesn’t always work, but the options are power politics or doing nothing.

Wasserman’s endorsement, by the way, didn’t come with a big fat check, so DuPree has not been able to canvass the state or inform people of his record. The Democratic Governors Association did donate $92,000 to the DuPree effort, but the Republican Governors gave three times as much to Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, whose years in public service have already made him familiar to most of the electorate. Overall, according to reports filed Oct. 10, Bryant has spent nearly $4.2 million to DuPree’s $611,000.

If, as considered highly likely, Bryant prevails on Nov. 8, the national media will point to race as the difference-maker. That’s to be expected. This is Mississippi and the fact that DuPree is African-American and Bryant is not is superficial, obvious, requires no research or understanding. The national press, which doesn’t dig very deep, will bypass the fact that DuPree has won three elections in a white majority city and inveigh that Mississippi remains a racist backwater of humanity.

But there is more to tell.

In approximately one generation, Mississippi has gone from a state that would elect a William Winter, a John Stennis, a G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery and, more recently, a Gene Taylor or Travis Childers, to become a state that is solidly “red.”

In a way, this is not surprising because polls consistently show that a majority of citizens — black and white — are conservative. The dominant belief is that to maximize personal freedom, the powers of government must be limited.

But viewed another way, it is inconsistent. Republicans, nationally and in the state, are the party of big business and corporations that work to keep wages low, limit the rights of homeowners and tenants, and reduce the aid of all types on which Mississippi individuals and the state economy depend.

This is not an endorsement of DuPree or a criticism of Bryant. Mississippi is a state of God-fearing people who respect life and each other and appreciate the right to keep a .12-gauge in the rack. It’s a great place to live and work.

It’s just that an electorate benefits when there’s a competitive election, a spirited exchange of views and ideas. It’s when we all throw in with one side or the other — become too predictable — that democracy is not working as it should. We ought to keep both parties on their toes. If we don’t, they’ll take us for granted.

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