Friday, November 9, 2018

U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy could make history in Mississippi's Nov. 27 runoff but he faces an uphill battle

(To the right, U.S. Senate candidate and former Mississippi Congressman and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy)

OXFORD, Miss. - I covered Mike Espy during his historic winning bid in 1986 to become Mississippi’s first black congressman since Reconstruction, and I covered him in Washington, D.C., during the first two of his three terms in Congress. He was a young fellow still in his thirties then with a practical, moderate brand of politics that enabled him to keep winning in a predominately black-but-still largely white dominated district.

Espy was different from his successor, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, another Democrat but more the firebrand. Knowing he was less able to reach across the aisle than Espy, Thompson helped negotiate the redistricting of Mississippi’s “Delta” district, extending its border farther south to give black voters a sure majority and in the meantime siphon those votes away from neighboring districts and making them more white.

While serving as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President Clinton, Espy began a four-year battle against allegations that he had taken gifts from companies he was regulating as secretary. He could have pleaded a deal, but he fought for his innocence and he won. The legal battle cost taxpayers $26 million and $1.3 million out of Espy’s own pocket and from the pockets of his friends. “The political experience was searing for me,” Espy recently told the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi.

After 24-year hiatus from politics, during which time he practiced law, remarried, and rebuilt his life, Espy is back in the fray, running for the seat vacated by U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, a Republican who retired in March after a nearly 40-year career in the Senate. On Tuesday, Espy carried 41 percent of the vote, enough to face Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith in a runoff November 27. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith to fill Cochran’s seat after he retired.

Espy comes out of the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party and is no raging liberal. He won an award from the NRA in 1988, although he now says “I didn’t leave the NRA, the NRA left me” and laments the organization’s turn to the “really right wing.” Labor organizers still bristle at Espy’s silence during the historic catfish workers strike in the Mississippi Delta in 1990. Espy supporters say he was working on behalf of the strikers behind the scene, but critics wonder whether he simply didn’t want to alienate wealthy Delta benefactors.

In 2007, he endorsed Republican Haley Barbour's bid for a second term as Mississippi governor.

However, in this election, he has campaigned vigorously on behalf of better health care for Mississippians and raged against the closing of rural hospitals that came from Bryant’s opposition to Obamacare and refusal to expand Medicaid. Mississippi is in desperate straits these days after years of Republican rule, the poorest state in the nation with the most threadbare of safety nets for its poor and a political leadership that largely could care less.

Democrats took back the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday but lost ground in the U.S. Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is already stirring the pot for another Republican-led assault on Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, and using the growing deficit caused by the Republican-sponsored tax cut to the wealthy as an excuse. The Senate needs Espy, but he faces an uphill battle on November 27.

In the November 6 primary, Republicans split their vote between the establishment candidate, Hyde-Smith, and Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel. President Trump, a Tea Party hero, gave his endorsement to Hyde-Smith, which McDaniel says doomed his candidacy. Still, McDaniel is urging his voters to support Hyde-Smith, saying loyalty to the president is necessary even when it means voting for an “establishment” candidate.

Hyde-Smith, a former Mississippi commissioner of agriculture, has raised some $3 million for her campaign, and Espy’s campaign chest is around $2 million. Expect a lot of frenzied activity in both camps over the next two weeks. After initial resistance, Hyde-Smith has agreed to debate Espy. Either way, the race is historic with the opportunity for Mississippi to have either its first female elected U.S. senator or its first elected black U.S. senator since Reconstruction.

Let’s hope history is made in a way that Mississippi needs it to be made.

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