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Katrina casts shadow over Coast mayoral races

Almost four years after she roared ashore on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Hurricane Katrina still casts her devastating shadow over life in the three coastal counties. That includes this year’s mayoral races. Several mayors have expressed Katrina fatigue as their reason for not seeking re-election.

In the summer of 2005, five new mayors proudly took the oath of office to lead the cities of Moss Point, Pascagoula, Gautier, Ocean Springs and Gulfport. The new mayors were just finding their way around their respective city halls when this country’s historically worst natural disaster struck. Of those five, only incumbent Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran is running for a second term.

Moss Point Mayor Xavier Bishop pointed to his fatigue as the reason he chose not to run for another term. “There’s so much frustration,” he said. “The last four years have taken an enormous toll. I feel burned out and physically tired. It’s been a continuous stream of activity. It never stops.”

The former Bell System employee said he has mixed feelings, but would not want to stay on and have his effectiveness diminished. “Clearly, I can point to some things we’ve accomplished,” he said. “The city is on a sound economic footing, customer service to the citizens has improved and the infrastructure has been rebuilt.”

With 11 candidates seeking the post he’s vacating, Bishop is not taking sides but said he may campaign for some other incumbent mayors with whom he developed camaraderie through the disaster recovery.

It is quite different in Pascagoula where only one candidate, Robbie Maxwell, qualified to replace outgoing one-term Mayor Matthew Avara.

“I qualified within the first five minutes of the first day to qualify and I’ve been campaigning since then,” Maxwell said. “Nobody else wanted to challenge me, and I am pleased the people of Pascagoula have confidence in me.”

Now he can concentrate on the smooth transition he and Avara have agreed upon, including Maxwell’s attendance at city council meetings. Now retired, Maxwell worked 24 years with the Pascagoula Police Department and for a number of years with former Sen. Trent Lott.

“I have been involved in a lot of community activities and city projects,” he said. “I just loved it and thought about running for mayor for a long time. This time it clicked.”

Gulfport’s first-term Mayor Brent Warr, facing federal charges on Katrina fraud, chose not to seek re-election.

“I plan to work tirelessly for the remainder of my term and beyond to make sure a new and better Gulfport is built on the foundation that we have laid,” he said. “The next four years will be exciting for our city. The seeds we have planted have taken root and are now becoming visible.”

George Schloegel, recently retired CEO of Hancock Bank, is among three candidates seeking to become Gulfport’s next mayor. “At age 12, I decided I would run for mayor when I was 32,” he said. “By that time, I had three children and a bigger obligation to my family. Time went by and I was involved with the bank. Now, the stars have lined up for me to run.”

Chipper McDermott became mayor of Pass Christian in a special election in August 2006. Describing himself as high energy, he wants to continue the work of rebuilding this city where he was an alderman for nine years.

“There’s no way to tell someone of the fatigue, red tape and frustration of dealing with rebuilding efforts,” he said. “We’ve made a pretty good amount of progress. I’m running because I’ve got a grip on things and want to see them completed.”

In neighboring Long Beach, Mayor Billy Skellie is also running for another term. “We have so many major projects and some that have taken three-and-a-half years to get ready to start. We also have our comprehensive plan just about ready,” he said. “I feel like I need to see these through. That’s why I decided to run again.”

Skellie, who was elected in a special election 10 months before Katrina, felt somewhat like a new mayor, too. As a former alderman, he had knowledge of the community and city personnel. His dad was a brand new mayor of Long Beach in 1967 when Hurricane Camille struck the area.

“Dealing with Katrina’s aftermath has been hard, but I’ve handled it like the blue-collar guy that I am,” he said. “It’s like eating an elephant one bite at a time.”

Eddie Favre, long-time mayor of Bay St. Louis, is among the incumbents not seeking re-election. The Mississippi Business Journal was unable to reach him for comments about his decision.

Another long time Coast mayor, A.J. Holloway of Biloxi, has been in office since 1993 and is running again. “Frankly, we have a lot of work to do, and I want to see it through to success,” he said of his decision to run. “I love Biloxi, the work and I know the importance of having a good vision of what this city can be and how to make it happen.”

While he found the first 18 months of digging out from Katrina debris trying for everyone, he now feels invigorated by the fact that the city is on the cusp of seeing millions of dollars of improvements going out for bid and getting under construction.

“Instead of thinking about fatigue, I prefer to think about something that I tell our residents on a regular basis: we see a milestone — large or small — each and everyday in Biloxi, whether it’s a new road being rebuilt or reopened, a new facility unveiled, someone moving into their new home or the corner beauty shop re-opening,” he said. “Seeing those things makes me want to do more and keep things moving.”

State Rep. Michael Janus is also challenging Holloway. “He had said he wasn’t going to run,” Holloway said. “Maybe he thought he saw blood in the water. I’ve been consistent in my position.”

Janus said he has spent his life preparing for this type of position. He expects the campaign to be positive.

“I feel I have something to offer Biloxi; a vision to move Biloxi forward and go after opportunities to help diversify the economy,” he said. “Mayor Holloway has done a good job and given service to the city. I have a lot of respect for him, but at this point Biloxi needs energetic leadership to sell the city’s attributes.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at lynn@lynnsdesk.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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