The JFP Interview With Dave Dennis | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The JFP Interview With Dave Dennis

Photo by Courtesy Dave Dennis for Governor(top)/Thomas Beck(bottom)

In 1995, then-Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice announced his re-election campaign from the Gulfport home of Dave Dennis. Dennis had a lot in common with the governor. Both made their fortunes in the construction industry, and Dennis was an active Republican fundraiser who embraced Fordice's brand of business-friendly conservatism. Dennis, now 58, hopes to follow in Fordice's shoes. He's launched a campaign for governor, challenging Republican frontrunner Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant.

Like Fordice, Dennis is running on his private-sector credentials, casting himself as the government outsider who has "signed the front side of a check" to Bryant's career as a bureaucrat. It's a story that could strike a chord with anti-government sentiment rampant among conservatives.

An Atmore, Ala. native, Dennis graduated from Auburn University in 1975 with a degree in industrial management. He worked for school-bus company Blue Bird for a little over a year before joining Specialty Contractors in Gulfport as its branch manager. In 1985 he bought the construction firm, now called Specialty Contractors & Associates.

With business success, Dennis has picked up a host of civic and leadership credentials, sitting on boards of numerous community and business organizations. He served three terms on the board of the New Orleans Federal Reserve branch, spent time as chairman of the Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce and chaired Leadership Mississippi, a project of the Mississippi Economic Council.

Dennis has two adult children with his wife, Jane, whom he married in 1973.

Why are you running?
I've never run for office before. I have been engaged in Republican politics. I was state finance chair ... and then national finance chair of different events, but in general terms, that's all I've really done politically.

I just feel compelled to do it, simply because we feel (that) once Gov. Barbour is out, there's going to be a tremendous leadership void in this state. And the answers, from our perspective, come from the private sector. They come from a person that has the CEO ability, because the governor clearly is the CEO, the ambassador for the state, the salesman for the state, the face of Mississippi. We feel like our job experience, our job creation abilities, and the other aspects of things we've done, give us certainly a much more experienced position on being a CEO for the state.

Barbour definitely has savvy with the corporate aspects of the job, but he's also a real political operator. Couldn't someone say that you've got this great private-sector experience but you haven't dealt with the nuts and bolts of the Legislature?
I think America spoke very loudly and very clearly to that question in November 2010, and they're going to speak toward it at the primary in 2011, in August, in this state. People want real leadership. They don't want career bureaucratic politicians. I consider it a plus that I have not been all through legislative processes. I think leadership comes from being able to lead people, to understand business, to understand the business of the state. Most people I talk to think it's an extreme plus that I have not done that.

You've been introduced by Jeppie Barbour at a number of campaign events. Any chance of getting another Barbour's endorsement?
You would have to ask whatever Barbour you're referring to. I would never put him in a position to answer that question. I don't think he should endorse at this point. Plain and simply, he's got a legislative session going on. Obviously, I would accept (his endorsement) and be very grateful for it, but I don't expect him to do that. We have had the chance, through the Republican Governors Association, to go sit down and talk to 21 governors with him, to talk about budget policy, strategy (and) tactics.

You seem to speak pretty highly of Gov. Barbour. What specifically in his two terms are you impressed by or do you approve of?
Well, I live in Pass Christian, down on the Coast, and I can tell you that in the post-Katrina environment, his leadership was really magnified and amplified, mainly because he took the bull by the horns and ran with it. Leadership is what matters, and Gov. Barbour clearly is a leader; he's a serious leader. Now, in terms of specific legislation, I'm delighted with things such as tort reform, things that provide and foster an environment for business to grow—or it gives people the sense of fostering an environment that people want to invest in. That's what he has brought to the table. He's brought the ability to be a CEO and to talk face-to-face, CEO-to-CEO, with other leaders and people that want to invest in our state. That's what he's brought to the table. Yes, I am very impressed with his leadership style and his capacity to sell Mississippi, and I think that's one of the major things the governor has to do.

Something that Barbour has clearly focused on is energy. What should the state's role in promoting energy be?
Well, I think you should get all the energy sources and resources available and put them into the public arena, in terms of supply. If you look around the state energy-wise, you can look at Port Gibson, (at the) 1,443-megawatt (nuclear) reactor being upgraded. It's going to likely be the largest reactor in North America. You've got the liquefied natural gas facility that's gone (up) off the coast of Pascagoula. You've got the Kemper County facility with the gasification that, assuming it comes online, you're going to have an exceptional amount of energy available to the state and in the state.

One of the key ingredients for attracting legitimate, upscale businesses to come in with high-paying jobs is having not only an energy resource, but having an affordable energy resource. That's what Mississippi has. We've got an extremely abundant ability to produce, and we've certainly got the resources and the capacity to provide both natural gas, electricity-wise, and other fossil-fuel resources. That's the energy policy that, in a broad-brush commentary, we would offer. You've got to have energy to produce, and you've got to have energy to be a viable candidate to attract good businesses into your state. We would be very much in favor of providing it.

Does what's going on in Japan change your thinking at all on nuclear power?
No, it does not change my thinking. You're looking at, from the best I understand, the fourth most catastrophic earthquake in modern recorded history in a general fault area. Grand Gulf, I know, is on the bottom reach of the New Madrid Fault—at least it's close to it. But everything that I've heard, through MEMA and other people, suggests that the soil substrates where it rests would not lend itself to the kind of catastrophic (seismic) activity that you had in Japan. But to answer your question, the quick answer is no, it does not compromise my thought that clean, safe nuclear energy needs to figure into the program of our energy policy in this country.

What did the Gulf oil spill look like from where you were? Did that give you pause, in terms of the environmental consequences of certain energy sources?
Jane and I live on the beaches of Pass Christian. Literally, we pay property tax on the white-sand beach of Pass Christian at my home. So, having said that, we're very, very concerned with it, but at the end of the day, I think you have to pursue legitimate opportunities to be energy—if not self-sufficient, or independent, at least working toward that. That was a tragic accident out in the Gulf last April, an extremely tragic accident, but I am not opposed to drilling in the Gulf.

Now, was it an environmental disaster? We may not know for a long period of time what the total impact of that spill is. You have to be conscious of those things. You have to drill safely; you have to do things safely. But from an environmental perspective, it caused probably as much psychological concern with people, and with tourists wanting to come down. It clearly put a veil over the coast for an extended period of time.

The answer ultimately is you have to produce your resources that are available to you. That is what is available, and I am comfortable if it's pursued in a safe manner, and in a regulated manner such that there are adequate safety concerns there. I don't know what happened on this blowout, I don't really know. We probably won't know officially for some time. But it created a mess on the Coast, make no mistake about it.

What about renewable energy resources like biofuels? Gov. Barbour seems to be touting a lot of these companies that are coming in.
The biomass, the biofuels—it does a couple things. One, to a degree it will stimulate the timber industry, which in reality is agriculture. It'll stimulate some of those things. Is it the most cost-effective way, right now, as it's getting cranked up, in its infancy? Probably not. Does it have the potential to move into the right direction? I think it needs to be pursued to see if that is, from an economic perspective and from a fuel-source perspective, if it's the right answer. It very easily could be. I think you pursue them—you move in, you don't jump into the bucket completely, but you step into the arena. You put your chips on the table, so to speak, to see if that's the correct way to go. And you take some trial, incubator systems and you move them. That's basically what Gov. Barbour is suggesting, from my perspective.

What do you think of the state's education system, and how should the next governor approach it?
Currently, our appropriated budget in this state is, in round numbers, $5.5 billion. Roughly 60 to 62 percent is the public education arena, in terms of K-12, community colleges and IHL. But K-12 clearly, clearly we've got to look at how money is spent, whether it is top-heavy. The real question is: What dollars, per pupil, are getting in the classroom? And is it skewed properly in terms of classroom expenditures versus administrative expenditures? ... Any business has to look at how your overhead is run. That's mandatory. But in terms of education, we are a 1,000 percent proponent of public education. And you either educate kids or you run the risk of incarcerating them. That's your bottom-line answer.

How do you feel about the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, then, that sets a target for what it says is the adequate amount of money for public education? We've only fully funded that one year, I think, under Gov. Barbour. Is that a reasonable target? Should it be fully funded?
I think you always try to target education as fully funded. Absolutely that should be a target. Is it a reality in every year? You've got to be realistic, because there are many other items that take place in a budget. When education is pushing two-thirds of your appropriated budget, you've got to be careful in terms of not cutting other groups short.

[Editor's Note: All levels of education, from kindergarten through college, make up 60 percent of the state's general fund, which does not include federal funds or some other state revenues. K-12 education only accounts for roughly
17 percent of the state's total budget.]

Now ... the public-school systems have the option, if people on a local level do not feel like they're getting adequately funded in certain arenas, of going back for the ad valorem differentials. That makes it a local issue for each local school system to determine if we feel like we're underfunded. They can additionally go back and try to pursue it from a board of supervisor and other level for additional millages. But in terms of funding adequate education, you're going to find very few folks that feel like you should not fund education adequately, both figuratively and literally, with the adequate education bill.

What about pre-K? There's a growing consensus that it's important. What should the state's role be in providing or supporting it?
Are you familiar with the Building Blocks program?

I am, yes.
Leadership Mississippi—that was their project for several years. I chaired Leadership Mississippi from 2005 until early 2010, so I'll let you figure out, from that perspective, my thoughts on it. I chaired it, I believe in it. Ultimately, you've got to get kids early. You've got to get them early, and you've got to get them into a mindset (where) they're willing to learn. In terms of how do you fund it, how do you pursue it, there are a good number of pilot programs going on right now. ...

Many of them are going on around the state right now. They've been privately funded. Now, what is the state's role? I think the state's going to have to decide, and I think it will likely be two years from now—how do you fund it, is it something that we need to move forward with; some pilot program that's successful? And if it is successful, how do we put the money in there? That's what we're going to have to look at. But I think it's a worthwhile pursuit.

But if the state funds pre-K, that's another thing to fit into the budget. Is that realistic? Should the state (pay for it)?
It is a realistic consideration. But again, we need go back to the fundamentals of what makes the state work. The taxpayers are the customers of the state. The taxpayers ultimately will decide what they're willing to pay for. And in the kind of economic environment we've been in for the last two or three years, it's going to be difficult to find the money to go ahead and put it in play from a publicly funded point of view. That is indeed true. The question(s) then would become: Do you cut highway patrol? Do you cut corrections? Do you cut mental health in order to put that in place? That's going to be a debate that's going to have to be fought out in public discourse.
It sounds like you're saying that a real increase in revenue is a long way away. Is that what you're suggesting?

Well, I didn't remotely suggest that, but I do think that's the case. I think you're looking at probably a two-year run, minimally, perhaps even three years before we get back to the full tax revenue that you might've seen in 2007. We've got a long, hard road ahead of us, financially, in this state. It is going to take reasonable financial management, and there are going to have to be some tough decisions made. Some of them are things you're asking right now. Do you do pre-K or do you do some other service? That's the discussion that's got to be taken to the people of the state for a decision. You can come up and say, "This is what we're going to do, by golly," but these are critical, lifetime decisions to be made for not only kids but for the general populace as it matures. And it's one that is going to take discussion, because if choices have to be made, then those choices should be vetted within the public arena.

Is it entirely about making decisions on one side of the ledger—cutting things out of the state budget?
Not necessarily. My dad always taught me that if you're running a business, look at your recurring expenses. ... Look at perhaps cutting 5 to 7 percent out every single year, if you can do that, because every year on the front end, you're going to have new technology, new plant equipment. If you're isolating education, you're going to have new things you want to do.

You're not going to find one-tenth of 1 percent of folks that really and truly don't feel you ought to educate kids at whatever age you can educate them. The question is: Can we pay for it? And if we choose to pay for it, if we have to make decisions, let's talk about how those decisions should be made and what should be tweaked. But if you've got recurring expenses in education, in whatever arena you're in, you've got to look at how to cut them. And you've got to look at what is really necessary. ... That's what's got to be done at the state. We've got to look at things that recur in terms of year-in, year-out expenditures. Likely, you're going to find a lot of things that perhaps that we could likely apply to other items. And perhaps one of those other items would be early childhood education.

But then early childhood would become a year-to-year expense.
It would become one, and it would be one that would grow fairly rapidly. That would be my sense of it. This is a discussion that is going to have to be taken to the public. It's going to have to be discussed wide-open, but I am very much an advocate of early childhood education.

I realize it's politically challenging territory, but what do you think about the state's tax structure? Two-thirds of the largest corporations in the state aren't paying corporate income tax. Personal income tax brackets are the same as they were in 1984. Is there any room for updating tax brackets in the state?
Didn't Gov. Barbour put in place a tax commission to review all of that—a blue-ribbon commission, last year, to come forth? I think that's still in discussion at this point. You can always look at things. I would just tell you, though, I am more about cost containment than revenue enhancement. ... You can always look at things, certainly, to see if they need to be updated. But would I just arbitrarily say we need to adjust this tax structure? I'm not prepared to say that.

Going forward, what's your vision of how the state should approach economic development?
We've got several good economic horizons. The state Port (of) Gulfport likely will be the largest development you've seen in this state and the most significant development in terms of leveraging the success of this state, probably in our lifetimes, including yours. The catalyst for that is the Foreign Trade Zone. I chaired that Foreign Trade Zone as a thirty-year-old. That's what we've been doing on the ground, running hard. You've got to look at your resources. The state Port (of) Gulfport is a major one. We have extreme energy resource availability, which we talked about a few minutes ago. Tourism is clearly an area that has enormous upside potential. It's people who normally come into your state, not relying on your public schools, not relying on hospitals and other things that come in spend money and have a great time. They're your greatest ambassadors when they leave the state as salesmen. That's what part of the equation is. Those are some of the good horizons.

Gov. Barbour has said that he is thankful for the contributions of immigrants in helping to rebuild the Coast after Katrina. What does the immigration issue look like to you, from where you are in Gulfport?
Well, I'm in an industry where we compete with people that perhaps have used legal or illegal immigrants. We operate a company that employs Americans and creates jobs for Americans. From an immigration point of view, that is clearly a federal issue. I went out and talked to Gov. Brewer in Arizona not quite two years ago about it, and it's a different issue in our state than it is for (other) states. We're not a border state. They've got other issues.

What do you think of the immigration bills in the Legislature this year?
I'm not going to give a broad, blanket comment, and that's on any issue, until I see the final legislation. I will tell you, our company competes with illegals, and we do it with Americans that are tax-paying Americans. The jobs that we create are American jobs. ... I would think that whatever can legally be put in play to enforce existing laws is a good thing. ...

There are laws in place; we E-Verify employees. If enforcement were in place to take care of existing laws, I think most of your immigration problems would be neutralized. If we hire an employee, if we have somebody working on a job, we have to verify through the E-Verify system that they're legal.

Do you think it makes sense to enhance penalties on employers who don't use E-Verify or are caught employing undocumented workers?
I think there are pretty good penalties in place right now. Just simply taking people and busting them—if you've got a good reason, bust them. If people enforce the law, there are good laws in place right now. If people abide by the law and do it correctly, those things are in place. The immigration penalties the state imposes—enhance them. That's fine. If we compete with illegal people, enhance them. I'm OK with that.

Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant made headlines recently for comments about the Department of Justice's oversight on voter redistricting. He said he thought it was outdated and unnecessary. Do you share his opinion?
Realistically, it is well within the bounds of the state to request that DOJ take another serious, hard look at whether what they're doing is absolutely necessary. It's certainly an expense to the state, and it causes certain delays in certain areas. ... I think it is something that the Justice Department should respectfully be asked to revisit.

How do you think the governor and lieutenant governor have handled redistricting?
First off, the governor apparently has no veto power over it. So this is a legislative initiative. I just think that it amplifies the difference in leadership styles. Just candidly, I think redistricting has been more about failed leadership than bad maps. You can take maps and negotiate solutions and you can come up with answers. But people elect leadership to solve problems, and I think the voters clearly would say—and it's been pretty evident the last couple of weeks—there has been mighty weak leadership showing up on the lieutenant governor's side. That's not relative to the governor because, again, if you look into it, it's not a gubernatorial issue.

How should the state approach preparing its workers for when the economy picks up?
I think you've got to have skill sets. For people to come into this state, invest in this state and grow a business in this state, they want to know that there's a credible work force, there's an ability of people to understand the work.

You've got to educate the trades. I'm in a trade-oriented business. The apprenticeship programs that used to be in place 20 and 30, 40 years ago are no longer there. The job of educating and training, particularly with the skill sets of most of the trades, is now primarily vested in the community college system. I think you've got to invest in it. The growth in industry in this state is going to be predicated on our ability to have a good blue-collar, work-force-trained, credible work force. So your answer is: You've got to do it in education. You've got to do it in the work-force-training arena. That's some of what leveraged Toyota coming in. That's certainly some of what was part of the equation for Nissan coming in a few years ago.

What do you think sets you apart from Lt. Gov. Bryant?
The difference between the two of us is private-sector successful business and community experience, ... that, versus a career bureaucratic politician; that's the difference. We have real-life experience from chairing the Federal Reserve for the Southeastern region three different times, chairing Leadership Mississippi, chairing virtually any business organization. That's the experience and skills that we bring to the table. You're hiring a CEO to take Gov. Barbour's place.

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