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.”