Johnny Dupree was born on November 18, 1953 in Fort Benning, Georgia. He and his wife, Johniece, have been married since 1972. They are the proud parents of two adult daughters, and doting grandparents to their young grandson, Chandler. For fifteen years, Johnny Dupree worked at Sears, but he longed for more time with his family and began his career in public service. He was appointed to the Hattiesburg Public School Board in 1987, and soon thereafter started a real estate company with his wife, Dupree Realty.
In November 1991, Johnny Dupree was elected to the Forrest County Board of Supervisors, where he served proudly for ten years. He became the mayor elect of the city of Hattiesburg in June of 2001, where he has continued to lead for over a decade. All told, Johnny Dupree has been in public office for 23 years. He has the distinction and notoriety of being the first black gubernatorial nominee of a major political party in the state of Mississippi in modern times. I had the pleasure of talking with Johnny Dupree during the height of his campaign, as the election draws near.
GTP: Congratulations sir on your outstanding achievement within the state of Mississippi. If you are elected, what will you do to blur the party lines and work toward a more cohesive relationship among Republicans and Democrats? We must unite not divide.
JD: “I completely agree about uniting people. We need to stand together and work together. When I became mayor of Hattiesburg, we often had heated discussions about various issues and it was not productive. So I set up a retreat in Jackson for all the elected officials, so that we would learn how to find common solutions and work together for the good of the city. The group was comprised of many Democrats and Republicans and one Independent, as well as people who were very wealthy and those who were much less fortunate. We discussed what we could do to be nonpartisan and to end the discord among everyone…and we found that we could achieve it.”
GTP: Under your leadership, Hattiesburg is most definitely on the move and growing. Please tell me about some of your accomplishments as the Mayor of Hattiesburg.
JD: “Most recently, we were designated as the healthiest city in Mississippi in a population above 10,000. I am very proud of this because it proves that we are moving in the right direction. We have some programs that no other city has, for example, Behavioral Court. We were able to secure a grant to address the issue of the revolving door with individuals with behavioral problems, who go in and out of our court systems. Rather than putting these individuals in jail, we put them in touch with a clinician who can evaluate them and administer the necessary medicines or put them in a rehabilitation program of some kind.
“I am very proud of the fact that in the last ten years, we have created the kind of environment that has brought in many new businesses and created over 6,000 jobs in Hattiesburg which is essential for our growth and development. Also, our young adult population has grown (ages 24 – 29) by 27% according to our last census. Which means that they come here quite often to go to school, but after they get their education they are staying rather than moving away which is great.”
GTP: As someone who has been greatly involved in public education for many years, I know you are acutely aware of the many serious problems that exist within the Mississippi system. Test scores are low, teen pregnancies are at an all time high, and drop outs are quite prevalent. In addition, students are often entering the work force or going to college when they are very poor readers, can’t spell, or can barely do rudimentary math. What will you do as Governor to monitor teachers for effectiveness and accountability?
JD: “ What we propose is to make sure that our teachers are well prepared. We want to restructure the way our teachers are developed. The time frame for a student teacher to be in the classroom must be longer for more on the job training. We propose that a student teacher should remain in a classroom a year and a half. Then they will have enough experience to see if this is what they really want to do as a career choice, is it a good fit. Quite often after a year or two, teachers find that they really do not want the job.
“In addition, we would like a tax exemption (MS state tax) for educators, and pay them as professionals. We also propose ‘graduation coaches’ in the classroom. It has been proven that when a graduation coach is available to students, the graduation rate is much higher and the drop out rate is less. We need to examine gifted programs and see how we can challenge students even further. And also, not everyone is meant to go to college!
“The people who work on my house–plumbers, electricians—become very successful in business. They become entrepreneurs. They are craftsmen, and there is a world of careers in which people succeed where college was not in the equation. Those that want to go to college, should be able to go and the tuition should be affordable. But those that don’t want to go, that is fine too. The fact is that 50% of college students today don’t finish. And the courses are too difficult for many simply, because they are not ready.
“Early childhood development is crucial. It starts at the beginning. You can’t turn things around when the problems started many years ago. Literacy must be taught and taught well at the elementary level. Day care must also reinforce the basic skills. Year after year, reading, math, spelling, must be reinforced and not fall by the wayside. It starts at home, and it is the parent’s responsibility to teach their children but if the parent is neglectful, we must do everything within our power to prepare those children and teach them well.”
GTP: The Gulf Coast has always enjoyed a very close relationship with Governor Haley Barbour. He has been very visible and “hands on” throughout his time in office. Please tell me what the Gulf Coast residents can look forward to under your leadership if you win.
JD: “I will be there, and I will offer the same kind of involvement and visibility. I have always been someone who works very hard and gives my all. It comes from selling newspapers, bagging groceries, working at Sears, selling real estate and everything else I have ever done. I fired my [city] lobbyist so that I would be my own lobbyist for the city of Hattiesburg. People want to see their elected officials.
“I will also work to solve this homeowners insurance crisis that exists on the Coast. That is the greatest hindrance for economic development, and neighborhood development. Homeowners insurance should not be the first thought for prospective homeowners and it should not be a worry for existing homeowners. Also, whatever needs to be addressed and whatever needs attention in South Mississippi, I will always be on top of it. I am very eager to work with the leaders there.”
GTP: On the subject of Medicaid, how do you plan to revamp the system in Mississippi?
JD: “Healthcare is a touchy issue. But Hattiesburg was not named the healthiest city above 10,000 in the state by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi because they like us. It is, because we have changed the health condition of our citizenry with education. Once again, it must start in the very early years of childhood development.
“One of the major problems we have in many counties in Mississippi is obesity and smoking. We are totally smoke-free in Hattiesburg and have been for about 3 or 4 years now. It has reduced the number of people with respiratory diseases – this has been proven. We have also established a ‘Complete Street Ordinance.’ Every time we build a new street or rehab a street, it has a sidewalk or bike path included so people will have a way to exercise and get moving. Not everyone can belong to a gym, so these things must be built into the infrastructure of a city. We have also instituted a ‘Safe Route’ to school, so children can safely walk or ride a bike to school on a sidewalk, not in the street where it’s dangerous. These are small changes that have made a huge difference. We have enhanced the quality of life for all Hattiesburg citizens and increased our infrastructure.
“Medicaid must be examined by experts and looked at very carefully to see what we can do to improve the system. But living healthier lives, getting more fit, and eating right, not smoking, all these things will drive down the cost of Medicaid because people will not need it as much because they will be more well. I would like to see the ‘red tape’ be less of a problem for Medicaid recipients. I also think we need to increase the universal list of prescription drugs. We must streamline Medicaid to save money. My ultimate goal however, would be to reduce the number of people on Medicaid by making them healthier. Preventative care is most important.”
GTP: I know that the development of small businesses is the cornerstone of your platform but what about corporate America? How do you feel about the prospect of big companies and large corporations setting up shop in Mississippi?
JD: “I love big businesses. I want big business to come here and make a real commitment to Mississippi. We recently cut the ribbon for a brand new solar panel company in Hattiesburg that will offer over 1,000 jobs in 6 years, with salaries averaging $40,000 a year. They have pledged to hire Mississippi employees, and hire Mississippi contractors. In return, we will creatively restructure their taxes and the state has allowed them access for low interest loans. They are expected to hold up their agreement and if so, both entities will benefit. One hand washes the other but both hands have to know what they other hand is doing.
What has happened before is that agreements were made in good faith with other large companies and then when it came time to deliver what was promised, they did not honor the agreement. Small businesses come in and they stay, they pay their taxes, they weather the storm, they can be depended upon so in turn we offer them incentives and tax breaks which transcends into more good, stable jobs for Mississippians.”
GTP: If you are elected the new Governor of Mississippi, what will your primary goals be in office and what do you most want to see come to fruition under your leadership?
JD: “There are a number of things. I think we can’t do anything more important than to increase education: less people dropping out and more graduating. As far as healthcare, we must make sure that our people continue to get healthier by the simple principals of exercising and eating right. And job creation – my goal is to do everything I can to create as many small businesses as possible, and employ as many people as I can all over Mississippi. I honestly believe we can accomplish all these things here and I also believe that if it can be done in Mississippi, it can be done anywhere in America.”
GTP: In closing Mayor Dupree, is there anything else you would like to say to the citizens of the Gulf Coast?
JD: “I encourage people to get out and vote on election day. Be educated about the issues before you cast your vote. Go to the polls well informed. Let’s have one of the biggest election turnouts in the history of Mississippi.”