PERRY/Pastor makes race an issue
Wednesday, September 25, 2013 1:00 AM
HATTIESBURG - Racial politics in Mississippi is changing. It is hard to deny race is not a component in elections, but most political leaders refuse to make overt racial pleas in campaigns. Such is the case in Tuesday's re-do election in Hattiesburg.
Three-term Democratic incumbent Mayor Johnnie Dupree edged out a 37 vote lead in the July general election against independent challenger Dave Ware.
Ware challenged the result in court alleging voting irregularities and sought to have tainted absentee ballots tossed out which would have resulted in his victory. The challenge ended in a mistrial but the Court ordered another election.
That race plays a role in the election between Dupree (who is black) and Ware (who is white) is undeniable. Fortunately, I've seen no evidence that either candidate or campaign is overtly engaged in racial politics.
The 2010 Census posts the Hattiesburg demographics with a 53 percent black majority to a 42 percent white population. Observation shows Hattiesburg neighborhoods do not appear to be mixed in their support - either an area is covered in Dupree signs or an area is full of Ware campaigns. I would suspect the racial demographics of those neighborhoods would reflect the candidate they're supporting.
A recent New York Times article captured the 'race is a component' observation in the election. The Times quotes Forrest County N.A.A.C.P. President Clarence Magee, "We try to avoid raising the racial issue, but it's there. You can't ignore it. I think it's a factor, and I think it will always be a factor because we are in Hattiesburg." Magee went on to say, "the African-American community has so much at stake and so much to lose if Mr. Ware prevails."
Ware's campaign manager, David Morris, told The Times, "At no point was our campaign ever about exclusion. It was about exactly the opposite." The Times reports, "Marija Bekafigo, a political scientist at the University of Southern Mississippi, in Hattiesburg, said she believed that Mr. Ware had constructed a coalition that included both former supporters of Mr. DuPree's and many black voters. 'He had black supporters right behind him, who were clearly there in the courtroom supporting him,' said Dr. Bekafigo, who attended the trial."
While the campaigns may not be playing the race card, the same cannot be said about their supporters.
On Election Day, I listened to WJMG 92.1FM in Hattiesburg as Rev. Charles Bartley instructed listeners to vote for Dupree because "Dave Ware is not the answer to the prayers of our ancestors."
When I first listened, Bartley was more guarded, saying "turnout is massive on the other side of town."
But he became more acute as he described a decision he had to make in 2008. He said he had decided to vote for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Presidential Primary because he thought she would do a better job than Barack Obama. But when he got into the voting booth and had to register a choice "between a white woman and young black man" he had to choose Obama.
Bartley told listeners that some people are telling them to ignore their head and heart and instead to vote their economic interests. He said doing so would deprive all the "little Johnny Duprees out there" of a role model that Ware could not be for them.
Bartley said listeners should vote for "our best interests" and said he meant by that, the best interests of blacks. "[Ware] does not have the best interest of our people at heart," Bartley said.
Bartley told listeners to ignore those who say that "voting race is for dinosaurs" and provided phone numbers to rides to the poll from the Dupree Campaign for anyone "if you're going to vote for Johnny Dupree."
To his credit, Bartley, the pastor of Zion Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, said he was not going to invoke God in his admonition because he believes there are good Christian people on both sides of the election praying for the outcome they want and he just doesn't know what God is going to do. He said he understands Ware is a good Christian man, but that isn't enough reason to discount "our heritage."
I'm sure Bartley was not speaking for the Dupree campaign. But when each campaign designated inspectors to review the ballots in July, Bartley was one of two individuals representing the Dupree campaign.
This isn't the first time to hear inflammatory rhetoric from Bartley. Last year, when Hattiesburg city council members who were white did not approve Dupree's school board re-appointments, Bartley called their actions "as classic as Gone With The Wind."
Certainly race is still an issue for some voters when they make a decision on casting their ballots. Fortunately, mainstream candidates no longer make explicit racial calls. That's more than can be said for campaign supporters.
Brian Perry is a columnist for the Madison County Journal and a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.