GULFPORT — The Warr family’s new life under a blazing public spotlight has come hard and fast. The past two years have been a lot like drinking water from a fire hose.
They have weathered political storms and personal criticism in the face of impetuous new demands, but the young Warr clan seems to have an elegant and proud matriarch to turn to for shelter and soothing guidance.
Laura Warr is raising two children on compassion, respect, religion and Johnny Cash, while also playing a lead role in helping the state’s secondlargest city stagger out from Hurricane Katrina’s mess.
Laura and her husband, Brent, sat down one night in early 2005 to discuss the pros and cons of making a run at City Hall. Next, they made a list of the most critical issues stirring Gulfport at the time.
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Following a lopsided victory that summer, Brent, a Republican and political rookie, took office just 45 days before Katrina flipped South Mississippi upside-down, making the new mayor’s pre-election to-do list seem out of touch at best.
In a matter of months, the Warrs went from selling suits and ties at their family-owned clothing store to walking debris-choked streets with President and Laura Bush, Gov. Haley Barbour and Marsha Barbour.
“We’re no different than anyone else,” Laura said. “Everybody had future plans and want-to-dos and we’re no different from them, but if you take every day, one day at a time, then I don’t think it’s as overwhelming.”
‘She’s so passionate about all of this’
Mayor Warr said Laura keeps the family grounded and focused, and she means a lot more to Gulfport “than people probably realize.”
“She’s so passionate about all of this,” he said. “I bounce a lot of things off of her, because she helps me keep things in perspective; important things — housing, jobs and quality-of-life issues.”
She has helped write both of her husband’s State of the City addresses, she is a leader of the city’s crackdown on litter and active in the revival of Jones Park. She is one of the city’s largest promoters of volunteerism, and she is well-versed in many of the current struggles facing Gulfport.
But to those who question which Warr is really running the city, she said: “They must not know me very well, because my goal is to support my family first, and then, if I can spend some time doing good and volunteering, that’s what I’m going to do.”
She’s the daughter of a U.S. Border Patrol agent and a family counselor. She learned to pick corn as a child on her grandparents’ farm in south Texas. She understood the value of compassion at a young age and later fell in love with a dark-haired boy from Mississippi.
As a student at Austin State University in 1983, Laura worked in a campus bookstore. While out with some friends one night, it was the lead singer of a fraternity rock band who caught her ear — and eye.
“The first time I ever laid eyes on Brent he was on stage singing in a fraternity band,” she said. “He hates when I tell this story, but he was good, really good, and he wasn’t too bad to look at, either.”
The former bookstore clerk and the lead singer recently celebrated their 18th wedding anniversary; they have two children, Emma, 11, and Noah, 7. The Warrs are Gulfport’s first family in the middle of arguably the most critical mayoral term in this harbor town’s history.
Two years into her husband’s first term, Laura seems to understand the grueling demands of the mayor’s office. She also has developed her own arduous schedule.
On a recent Tuesday, she had a morning meeting on her battle against litterbugs, a newspaper interview at noon, picked up the children from school at 2:30, homework until 3:45, a TV interview at 4 and Noah’s batting practice at 6. Then it was time to get ready for a birthday dinner with her husband at 7:30.
The couple planned to celebrate Laura’s 42nd birthday with a quiet meal, but a magazine publisher seeking to do a story on Gulfport and its recovery was already scheduled to meet with the mayor.
No city — especially not one recovering from a disaster — can afford to pass up a chance to tell its story. So like one big, happy family, the Warrs and the publisher shared a birthday dinner at Beau Rivage.
“We mixed a little business with pleasure,” she said. “Brent could’ve been in some trouble if he didn’t take the wife to dinner, but he had a meeting already scheduled, so we all went out together.”
Operating as a family
Laura said the Warr family has always depended on each other, and now, being involved together in Gulfport’s recovery is mostly how they survive. If the mayor is overseeing construction of a new park, renovating a house or cleaning a city property, the whole gang will likely be there.
“Before the storm and before he became mayor, we had always operated as a family, always doing things together,” Laura said. “Even into the mayor’s office, Brent just makes sure that any chance we have to attend something together we are all there with him.
“The children are seeing what it means to be good stewards of the community and they know they’re a vital part of what he’s doing. They know that his work is ultimately about their generation; things that are happening in Gulfport now are things that will affect them.”
April 27-29, Laura will help lead city employees and volunteers in a citywide cleaning spree. She has been recruiting volunteers for weeks to work in specific neighborhoods.
“Laura is a very passionate person, who always puts her family first in everything,” said longtime friend Cindy Creel. “She’s very sincere and since Brent has been in office she really has been devoted to making the best of his time as mayor.”
Becoming a political wife
Laura tries to stick to the community service and stay out of the politics of City Hall. She is slowly developing a thick skin to cope with the bitter criticism that comes with life under a public microscope.
“This a wonderful opportunity to do good things, but it’s not easy and you just have to keep focused on the purpose,” she said. “I’m doing better, only because I’ve come to recognize that some people are going to have a negative opinion no matter what you do, and to do good things you make yourself a target for harsh words.”
Laura said she can rely on other political wives for advice, such as Margaret Taylor, whose husband, Gene, has been a U.S. congressman for nearly two decades, and Macklyn Holloway, whose husband, A.J., has been mayor of Biloxi since 1993.
“There are times that I wonder what it would be like if we were still running the clothing store — like every morning when I pick up the newspaper to read what people are saying,” Laura said. “But then I think, this is what we are supposed to be doing because this is where God put us.”
The mayor is nearly halfway through his first term at City Hall. In the next two years, he hopes to get back to his preelection to-do list, and like her husband, Laura has no plans of letting up on her quest to help make Gulfport a safe place that out-of-towners envy and locals are proud to call home.