VICKSBURG — Vicksburg mayoral candidate Linda Fondren says she’s proud of her long list of accomplishments: building businesses from a gym to storage facilities and housing with her husband, volunteering for nonprofits, leading an ambitious local weight-loss program, raising a family, and traveling the world after a childhood in poverty.
But as the primary election nears, Fondren is fighting to keep her qualifications front and center as attention focuses on a part of her life she hoped wouldn’t go public: Her work as a legal prostitute during her 20s and later her part ownership of a Nevada brothel. Prostitution is legal in some parts of the state.
Fondren, 57, acknowledged her past work in Nevada’s legal brothel industry after local media exposed the story.
“That was a part of my life, that’s not who I am now,” Fondren said in an interview with The Associated Press from her campaign office, a converted former fast food restaurant. She said she doesn’t regret the experience because it helped shape her into the person she is today. Fondren met her husband and business partner when he was a client.
Dennis Hof, owner of the Nevada brothel where the HBO reality series “Cathouse” takes place, said he knew the Fondrens when they owned a nearby brothel, the Sagebrush Ranch. He said Fondren undoubtedly learned business skills that would serve her as mayor, and he hopes she would champion legalized prostitution in Mississippi.
Fondren, however, is less rosy about her time in the brothel business: “I hated it. I hated it.”
Asked whether she would support legal prostitution as mayor, she was unequivocal. “Absolutely not,” she said.
Fondren said she grew up in Vicksburg as a middle child in a large family, with 12 siblings. She got pregnant at 14, a few years after her mother died of cancer.
“We, as children, were kind of fending for ourselves,” Fondren said.
She took her three-year-old daughter to live with family in California. There, she earned a GED and went to technical school. Later she got a job at a San Francisco bank.
Fondren said she was earning barely more than minimum wage. She became friends with a young woman who she later learned was a prostitute, and was awed by her car and fine clothes.
Fondren says she never worked as a prostitute in California, but decided to try working at a legal Nevada brothel. Beginning in 1979, she worked there off and on until she met her husband. They built a business partnership, including the purchase of the Sagebrush Ranch. Soon they’d gone into housing and commercial real estate. Fondren said she doesn’t know the total worth of her business investments, but a 2011 “House of the Day” listing on the Wall Street Journal’s website shows the Fondrens selling their Mexican vacation home for more than $6 million.
Fondren’s story presents potential problems for her candidacy in overwhelmingly conservative Vicksburg. She faces six other Democrats in the May 7 primary, including state Rep. George Flaggs and incumbent Mayor Paul Winfield. Winfield faces his own potential campaign issue: He has entered a not guilty plea to corruption charges after prosecutors say he accepted thousands of dollars in bribe money from an FBI informant.
Supporters of Fondren point out that her past work was legal. It will be up to the courts to decide whether Winfield committed a criminal act.
Some Vicksburg residents seem ready to accept an episode decades in the past as long as Fondren has the ability to be an effective mayor.
“A lot of us, whether we admit it or not, we did some things we wouldn’t want to come forward or come out,” said Evelyn Jackson, a 69-year-old retiree and undecided voter. “So I think if she changed her life around and runs a good clean campaign, and wants to build up Vicksburg, I wouldn’t hold her past against her.”
According to a March Clarion-Ledger article, Fondren initially denied her connection to the Nevada brothel. Though Fondren later told the Vicksburg Post that she never denied it, some residents are still bothered by the report.
As mayor, Fondren says she would try to bring more tourist-related industry to Vicksburg by promoting the city’s casinos, civil war battlefield, and waterfront real estate. She said she hopes to help other young people avoid some of her mistakes by creating mentoring programs and youth activities.
Fondren said she never expected to speak publicly about her time in Nevada. In her interview with the AP, she emphasized her difficult youth leading up to the decision to work in Nevada and the accomplishments she achieved afterward.
“My story has hit because I want to run for mayor for the city of Vicksburg,” she said. “It is my story; I can’t change my story. But that story again is why I am who I am, and I want to be able to help others make better choices than what I had. And there are better choices out there these days.”