The JFP Interview with Johnny DuPree | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The JFP Interview with Johnny DuPree

Photo by Courtesy The DuPree Campaign

Johnny DuPree makes clear that he is a city man. DuPree, 57, has served as Hattiesburg's mayor for almost 10 years and wants to take his municipal know-how to the state level. He is one of two Democratic candidates, so far, who have announced their desire to run for the Mississippi governor's office this coming November.

Born in Fort Benning, Ga., DuPree grew up in Hattiesburg. He married his wife, Johnniece, when she was 17 and he was 19—not the most stable time in life, DuPree admits, to get hitched. Still, they've had 38 years to work out whatever trial and error a couple is likely to suffer.

DuPree worked for Sears for 15 years before entering public service as a member of the Hattiesburg school board in 1987. He and his wife also started their own real estate company in 1988. DuPree entered real-deal politics when he ran for Forrest County supervisor in 1991. After a series of successful re-elections as a supervisor,
he became Hattiesburg's first black mayor in 2001.

As mayor, DuPree takes pride in making the college town's city services more efficient: he cut the number of garbage collectors, but covered the resulting labor shortfall by investing in the one-time purchase of automated garbage trucks. He says he is confident that state government has the resources—and possibly enough room for improvement—to be a better government without raising taxes.

DuPree, however, is savagely defensive of municipalities' interest in any state-level argument. Having weathered unpopular property-tax increases on the local level to cover municipal and county-wide budget shortfalls, DuPree smacks his lips distastefully when he hears state-level politicians brag that they've kept taxes down amid statewide budget cuts. Statewide budget cuts, when paired with stagnant revenue generation, all too frequently spur tax increases on the local level to cover the resulting shortfalls in the school system and city services, he said.

DuPree says his tenure as mayor does not permit him to live in a rosy world of unrealistic budget expectations, and said he will make no vague statements about tax increases or budget cuts.

Money issues will come up real quick as a top priority. What are your plans for meeting the state's continuing budget shortfall head on?
First, you have to look at revenue, and make sure you're taking advantage of every opportunity for revenue generation that you have. For instance, there's a little deal going around now where some of the big-box retail stores are not paying their fair share of taxes. Those are the kind of things we need to pay attention to. You increase your revenue by doing some other things, too, but we'll talk about that further as the campaign goes on.

The big-box thing sounds like something you may have encountered as a mayor.
Yeah, those are the kind of things you find out as you try to be more efficient and make sure everybody's paying their fair share. That's always been my message: We don't want to increase anybody's tax burden; we just want to make sure that everybody's paying their fair share. There are loopholes out there that you need to come back and close. There are plenty of opportunities for that in the state budget, if it's anything like other budgets.

I'd like more details on that.
We'll talk more about them as the campaign progresses.

What's your take on state Medicaid spending? The governor has proposed cutting spending. Is that necessary?
I'm not for cutting any part of essential services that the state provides, not without taking care that we've made the system as efficient as possible. If we're not going to take care of the young, the elderly and the disabled, then what kind of state are we? We have to take care of those who need it the most. We've heard a lot about cutting to the core, but when you cut to the core, you get real troubles. There have got to be ways we can increase our revenue and efficiency to make sure we don't cut these programs any more than what we already have.

The state has a very nice match from the federal government. The federal government is more generous with us than many other states, and when you receive many times what we put into Medicaid, to me, it doesn't make sense to cut that. That's no way to meet the very dire needs that the state has. If the federal government is willing to help us with our needs, then we need to make sure to take advantage of that.

How do you propose to make it more efficient?
There needs to be new eyes looking at everything that we do in the state and making sure that we're getting and giving what we're supposed to getting and giving, and if there are opportunities out there that we're not taking advantage of, then we should be taking advantage of them.

What do you think of the need for Medicaid beneficiaries to meet face-to-face with a Human Services person in order to re-qualify for service?
I'm not going to judge the face-to-face policy before I have a chance to fairly review its effectiveness. If there's a situation where the policy is actually uncovering fraud, then we've got to correct the fraud, but if it's not really doing anything, then it's a policy that we need to look at improving or replacing. I think there are actually a very low percentage of people who are taking advantage of the system. If there's a need for more accountability and proof that there's massive fraud then I'm all for it, but we have to be careful not to remove people who genuinely need these services. The ones who get it should be the ones who need it.

So you're neither for it nor against it, yet?
I haven't spoken with anybody about face-to-face directly, but my issue is that we ought to have enough funds to take care of the people who need it, and in the process evaluate whether face-to-face is even needed or not. We're always hearing about fraud in Medicare or Medicaid. That's the first thing they say: "We're going to reduce fraud"—almost as if everybody on the program is guilty of fraud. That's the underlying message that we're sending people. But I trust Mississippians, and I trust people who are on these programs, and I'm interested in making sure that they have access to as many resources as possible. I'm not going to say there isn't fraud, but I'm willing to believe that there are many more people on the program who actually need it.

The Arizona-style immigration bill could make it out of the Legislature this year. Is it a good idea for the state to adopt a federal role in immigration policy?
First of all, I don't see the point in passing legislation that you'll surely find locked up in court. Another issue I have is regarding unfunded mandates. As a mayor, I hate unfunded mandates. The reason the Municipal League is against the Arizona bill coming out of the Senate is specifically because it is an unfunded mandate. They want to subject our mayors and our supervisors and our councilmen to lawsuits by individuals, and put undue responsibility on police chiefs and our sheriffs. By all accounts, we're not one of the states that are in dire need of that kind of legislation, anyway. We're not exactly flooded with immigrants, legal or otherwise, so I don't see the reason to put any extra burden upon local police forces. Makes no sense.

Are you so sure it will be an unfunded mandate? The House and Senate haven't finished with it, yet.
That's exactly what it's going to do the way it looks now. They're going to make us put immigrants in our jails, force our officers into immigration control, and when they get sued for either performing these new duties or for not performing these new duties—either one can get them in trouble—they're going to have us put these officers on administrative leave to wait for the suit to play out in court, when we really don't have the police to spare.

When you have these kinds of resource-draining laws coming down on the state level, the people that really suffer under these laws are the people running our cities, counties and schools, because they're the ones who have to come up with the money to actually implement these kinds of measures. It's on our backs. We need to implement measures that actually benefit local governments. There's a way to take care of the illegal-immigrant issue in Mississippi, but this law that's proposed isn't it, not by a long shot. There are other ways to do it. There are people in power who understand better how to solve this issue, but they're not willing to put a serious effort forward. This is an issue that's more about supply and demand than law breaking.

Did the city of Hattiesburg benefit from immigrant work during the Katrina clean up?
When clean-up was going on around Hattiesburg, I wasn't keeping count of the immigrants holding the shovels or pulling up tree limbs. We were too busy giving our thanks for our electricity. At the time, I can tell you that we really didn't care whether or not they were legal—they were helping us get back to some kid of normalcy. We had people from Virginia, Canada, California, China—you'd be amazed how few people really cared where they were from.

Supply and demand, as you say. Speaking of demand, Gov. (Haley) Barbour has stated that the future of the state lies in energy creation, among other things. He was referencing a couple of solar-panel plants moving into the state, and no doubt a new coal plant. Tell me something: How did you manage to land that new solar construction plant down there in Hattiesburg?
I didn't land it. We all worked together. This was large set of people who were willing to come together and move Mississippi forward. It helps when you have more people working together. Economic development is not a stagnant kind of endeavor. It's a continuation. Sometimes you hear about people moving, and sometimes they hear about you having adequate space opening up in your city.

MDA and our economic people in Hattiesburg heard there was an opportunity, and they knew that we had a facility that they could possibly use, and then the county government and the city government came together and talked, and, of course, Barbour had a hand in it also. When they talked to him, he said Hattiesburg would be a good place to come. There's not one person, entity or anything that makes these kinds of things happen. You've got a corner man and a cut man and a train man—you need all these people behind you to make this really work.

Haley Barbour stands against the idea of expanding the use of solar technology in the state, even if he does promote building solar panels here. What's your own take on the potential for solar home generation units on Mississippi rooftops?
My wife and I went to China last March, and every building in that part of China had some kind of solar-operated thing on their roof. I think maybe 10 or 15 years down the road we'll begin to open a new world of energy development here in Mississippi. It will happen, because this is an emerging kind of industry, and we've got to have some alternative way of powering, cooling and heating our facilities, and this is one of those options that we have. Sunlight is all around us. But there have got to be incentives for it. The cost has to come down in order for the average man to put something like that on his roof and to invest in it. We need some benefit like net metering to offset the cost. We've got to make it worth the investment.

Net metering hasn't really gotten off the ground in Mississippi.
It needs to, or something like it needs to. There's got to be some benefit that businesses can see in order to invest. We have to make it a good business decision to weatherize and generate your own electricity. Our Legislature has to look at alternative measures to help the development along, like net metering. It's already happening in other states. Frankly, it's happening in a lot of states directly around us, in states like us with a lot of sunlight.

Net metering allows us to sell power at a decent price back to the power company, to make (solar) affordable. You have to get something from your investment. Not only would it lower your bill, but it would take some of the generation need off our power grid.

What has Mississippi got going for it to draw new technology-savvy industry?
It's got people, of course. It's got people with passion and people willing to work. Mississippi has never been short on people who are willing to work hard, and who are willing to learn. There's a yearning for new technology and learning in Mississippi. When people come here, they learn that there's a mindset among us to work with businesses and a very strong desire by the citizens for progress.

What about education? Do you think we've invested enough in education?
I think the communities have more to invest, and I think the state has more to offer on its end. There's imbalance everywhere. All of us have to get in there and do our fair share to make sure we have a system that can deliver the best services it can to our children. Unfortunately, the numbers are there that we haven't been doing all we can to improve education. It's not just about throwing money at it. There's a possibility that we need to restructure our whole educational system.

Everybody wants a good education for (his or her) child. They often determine where they live based upon the kind of education that's available for their child. When you have numbers that come out and rate the school unfavorably, it'll affect your new population. Our goal is to make sure our kids are educated; our schools are vibrant, that we're active in the community, and people know our schools are trying.

We're going to have to reform our schools and restructure the school system so that when teachers graduate out of college, they'll know they want to be teachers, that it's not a trial time, and that in two or three years they'll come to the conclusion that they want to do something else. We need for them to know before they hit the classroom that this is what they want to do for the rest of their career.

There are things we need to do to our school system to change it up. There's something wrong when you have a football team with 70 kids and seven coaches. That's a one-to-10 ratio, but then you look at the classrooms and see a 30-to-one ratio, there's something wrong with that ratio. It says we value X's and O's more than ABCs. That brings us back to that fact that we've got
to make sure that teachers come out ready to teach.

Should I assume that you're a fan of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program?
You don't have to assume that. I am most definitely a fan of MAEP. I'll see to it that it gets steady funding.

That's MAEP. What about the Institutions of Higher Learning? IHL is going to continue to take hard budget hits over the next few years, by the look of it.
Somebody asked me what's going to be my priority, and I answered that all of them are going to be my priority. You don't have two sick children, and only take care of one child, and don't worry about the other. You make all of them your priority, and you put people together who can help you solve your problem. I'm not going to say that I have all the answers to solve every problem in Mississippi. I can't even solve all the problems in my house sometimes. What you do is choose the right professionals who have the answers, and get them together to work out a solution. There are enough people who know how to solve problems. You put them around a table and put your priorities before them so we can solve some of those problems, just like we did with Toyota, just like I do with Hattiesburg's budget. There are some needs we've known about for some considerable time. We've got to put all the resources together and get some things done.

You preach the spirit of cooperation, but, if elected, would you expect hostility from conservatives in the Senate and House?
You get what you expect. If you walk into a situation expecting a fight you'll get one. It's like with children: If you expect a particular child not to learn or not to succeed, that's probably what you're going to get. You've got to do away with expectations of anything other than we're all going to work together. I'm convinced that everybody wants to unite under the common goal of having a better state. Nobody walks into this saying, "I'd like to tear this place down." We all want our children to stay here and be proud to stay here, and
we want our state to be a good example for the nation.

Do you consider yourself in the political center?
Probably. Most of us like to think of ourselves as in the political center, but I rather think of it as wanting to do what's right, and to be fair. People want to be treated fairly, they want to be considered, and they want their voice to be heard. That's what I've always tried to do as mayor.

What makes you centrist? What are some of your more conservative philosophies?
Heh, I'm not sure. People have to tell me what's conservative. I don't try to determine the decisions I make based on whether it's conservative or liberal, or who thinks it's conservative or liberal. What may be liberal to you may come off as conservative to somebody else, and I don't have a laundry list handy on what's conservative and what isn't. I'll have to leave that up to other people to work out. I just try to shoot for what's right and what's fair, and, so far, that seems to take care of all the categories.

People who base their decisions upon whether or not their decision aligns with their political bent are basing their decision on the wrong thing. You should make your decision based upon what's right, and leave it to others to identify that decision as right, center or left.

What's the racial demography of Hattiesburg?
Voting age population is different from the regular population, which is roughly 50/50 black and white. When I was first elected, the voting age population was 57 percent white.

Many politicos expect whites to run immediately to the Republican ticket. Why is that such an issue in Mississippi? What causes the racial division in our statewide political spectrum?
I wish I knew so I could solve that division. I think when the right people with the right minds come together, we accomplish more as a state. The racial division in our political parties only adds to our national image that Mississippi is a state whose people can't seem to come together, and I think the perception that the nation has adds to our own perception of ourselves. It's an unfortunate image.

We are a state that relishes the people who work and live here, and everybody is equal. We have to start off by speaking these things aloud, and as we believe, so the nation will believe. And I think as we increase the jobs and capital income and reduce poverty and other positive things, the image of divisiveness won't float to the top as much as it does now. I think one of the reasons it floats to the top is you have to look at the number of people in poverty, and when you see that upsetting figure the next question people come up with is, "why is there so much poverty?" Racial division is one of the first and easiest answers we come up with to that question. We're going to have to work hard to reduce those factors that affect people's homes and capital income and increase poverty.

Does Hattiesburg suffer the issue of suburban areas drawing away affluent residents?
It's a cyclical issue. You have some moving in and some moving out, based upon the decade. Some areas are pretty stable, and others are diverse or are in a state of transition.

How do you keep the youth of Hattiesburg in Hattiesburg?
Oh, we're not immune to that, now. My own daughter moved to Jackson.

Ha. Too bad for you. Is there a method to hanging onto our younger generation?
Not without offering them opportunity. Young people have to believe that there are opportunities and reasons for them to stay in their town or their state, because there are other states that are constantly offering them opportunities. You know, young people can grow up in a city, spend their whole life there, but then they want to see the world. They want to see if there's something they missed by living here. My job is to make sure they come back.

Young people want to go out and explore. We teach them to go and explore, but then when they're gone for good, we hold it against them. It's not their fault. They have to have something to come back to. As I said, it's time to look at the state with new eyes to figure out how to make this state the best place in the world to live, and the most productive. We have to make sure that we get very smart people together around the table, and ask them how we solve our problems and better ourselves. How do we save our small businesses?

There has got to be somebody on a team that gets up every morning and goes to bed wondering, how do we make the Delta a better place to live, making sure we solve some of its serious problems. We need the same kind of people working on our school system, and we need the same kind of people working to preserve the state's small businesses, working on incentive programs to encourage small business growth and business preservation in the state, to help business owners realize their ideas and give them aid to make their ideas a reality.

What would you say sets you apart philosophically from the campaign of Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant?
I don't talk philosophy very much. All I can tell you is what's on the ground after serving five years on the school board, 10 years on the board of supervisors, and almost 10 years as a mayor. I understand that when the national or state government cuts our funding, the people on the lower level always have to suck up the shortfall. When there's a cut in education on the state level, we're the ones who have to fill those holes. As mayor and a local politician I've heard over and over again the call to cut services on the state and national level, and I know that this will mean more revenue and budget problems on the local level.

You know, whenever somebody brags about tax cuts on the national and state level, it's not really a tax cut. Tax cuts and budget cuts on the state level mean having to cut services or fight with property tax increases in the city, almost every time.

(Voice rising) When there's a cut in education, we have to suck it up on a local level. When you have local residents who don't have jobs and you take their unemployment, we have to suck it up. If our congressmen, our senators, our state legislators don't do it, our local government will have to do it. There's nothing philosophical about that—that's just reality. I know what it takes to deal with that, and I don't think any of these other people running for governor have ever had to deal with that.

I'm not singling out Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant; none of them have that experience. None of them have had to deal with the threat of having to increase property taxes to cover shortfalls that legislators created by cutting services. None of them have had to deal with that kind of pain. None of them have had to worry about whether or not the garbage gets picked up or the sewer system keeps flushing and meets its environmental requirements, or people getting cold outside, or keeping police officers paid and keeping their morale up so they won't run off to another police department.

These are the kinds of things that determine if you're really capable of running a government, and I don't think these other guys have done that. People don't give city leaders proper credit. Take the city of Jackson: Jackson ought to be a shining star to this state. It ought to be the poster boy
for Mississippi, saying, "Look at our state. This is a great place to come." It should reflect the best that the state of Mississippi has to offer.

The real potential for success in this state lies in its municipalities, and the state should do all it can to help.

JFP Person of the Day: Johnny DuPree

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