July 29, 2011 7:12:00 AM
JACKSON -- Republican Dave Dennis says he''s running for Mississippi governor because he believes the state will face "a phenomenal leadership void" when Haley Barbour leaves office after two terms, and he believes he can fill it.
The 58-year-old building contractor from Pass Christian has been involved in several community and economic development organizations, including serving as chairman of the Mississippi Economic Council''s leadership program. Dennis also has chaired the Federal Reserve board based in New Orleans and served on the executive committee for MEC and the Gulf Coast Business Council.
""We''re private sector people. I''ve never run for office before in my life," Dennis said this month after speaking to a civic club in Jackson.
"We believe in the horizon of Mississippi," he said. "The choice will clearly be between a 20-year, career politician and somebody that has successfully grown businesses, someone that is a business and community successful person. Ultimately, that''s who we are, is people who go out and volunteer our time and put service above self every day. And that is what we do. That''s not a political rhetoric comment. That is what we do."
Five Republicans and four Democrats face off in Aug. 2 gubernatorial primaries. Dennis is pushing to get into an Aug. 23 primary runoff with the top fundraiser in the governor''s race, Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant of Brandon -- the man Dennis criticizes as a career politician. Bryant, who served a decade as state auditor before winning the lieutenant governorship in 2007, says he has helped balance the state budget and has worked closely with fellow Republican Barbour on job creation.
Other Republicans running for governor are Pearl River County supervisor Hudson Holliday of Poplarville, businessman Ron Williams of Moss Point and former state employee James Broadwater of Byram.
Dennis rarely works off a prepared script, and his campaign speeches are peppered with references to leadership and private sector experience. One of the few lines he repeats, almost verbatim, at multiple campaign appearances is about his 37-year marriage to his wife, Jane.
"We started dating in ninth grade because her dad wouldn''t let me start dating her in the eighth grade -- which probably was a good call," Dennis told the North Jackson/Ridgeland Kiwanis Club. The line that prompted a few chuckles from the lunchtime crowd.
Dennis was born in Monroeville, Ala., the fourth of five children. His mother was a homemaker, and his father was a plant manager for the Vanity Fair women''s lingerie company. The Dennis family transferred to two other Alabama cities, Bayou La Batre and Atmore. Dave Dennis graduated in 1971 from Escambia County High School in Atmore, and he and Jane went together to Auburn University and married while still in school. He walked on to the Auburn football team, playing offensive center.
He graduated from Auburn in 1975 and his first job out of college was with the Blue Bird school bus company in Fort Valley, Ga., where he stayed for a year and a half. In 1976, Dennis and Jane moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to work for her father''s contracting company. The couple bought the company, Specialty Contractors & Associates Inc., from her father in 1985.
"We bought it. Literally paid for it, had it appraised and paid market value for it," Dennis said. "It wasn''t any gift."
Jane Dennis is the majority shareholder in the company, and that prompted criticism during a recent debate from Holliday, who said he believed Specialty Contractors had received preferential treatment as a minority business because it has a female executive. Dave Dennis, who is the president, said the company has never sought or received special treatment.
Specialty Contractors has done more than 6,000 commercial jobs over the past decades, including interiors of schools and hospitals, Dennis said in an interview. The company did the interior of the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi and the acoustical work for the Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center.
Noel Guthrie of Jackson, who''s retired from the state university system''s Research and Development Center, said he worked closely with Dennis more than two decades ago in establishing a foreign trade zone for the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
"He has a lot to offer," Guthrie said of Dennis'' candidacy for governor.
Dave and Jane Dennis have two grown children -- a daughter and a son. McComb real estate broker Debbie Stovall said her son attended high school with the Dennis children when she and her husband lived on the Gulf Coast before Hurricane Katrina. Stovall said she thinks highly of Dave and Jane Dennis and she''s supporting his campaign.
"He''s just absolutely brilliant," Stovall said. "He''s very practical and down-to-earth. He just has a wonderful reputation for being a leader and a strong businessman. He just relates to people with ease. It doesn''t matter who he''s talking to, he''s the same."
After Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast in August 2005, wiping away much of Pass Christian, Dennis served on a recovery commission that Barbour appointed.
Dennis has offered few specific policy proposals during the campaign, but he says often that Mississippi needs to improve its education system.
"My firm belief is that you either educate kids or you run the risk of incarcerating them," Dennis said during the Kiwanis meeting at St. James Episcopal Church in Jackson.
Dennis held a freewheeling discussion earlier this summer with high school students at American Legion Boys State convention in Hattiesburg. He told them to be leaders in their own communities, and to respect the women in their lives. He also said that people are looking beyond party labels for solutions to improve society.
"In the United States, if you''re a Democrat or Republican -- you think that really matters? We''re Americans. We''re Mississippians here," Dennis told the teenagers. "So, look at it. If you happen to be a Democrat, look at your Republican friends and just acknowledge that you philosophically have a different opinion.... Republicans, the same thing. People are looking for progress in this country. They''re looking for people that are leaders."