Chuck Espy, who has represented the 26th District in the Mississippi House of Representatives since 1999, is perhaps the strongest in a string of Democratic Party primary opponents for incumbent Bennie Thompson, who is serving his seventh term as Second District Congressman.
Born and raised in the Delta, Espy comes from a family with deep political roots. His father, Henry Espy, is the mayor of Clarksdale, and his Uncle Mike is a former congressman and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.
After graduating from Southern University at Baton Rouge, Espy returned to Mississippi, where he worked as an accounting manager for Northwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center. Shortly afterwards, he began working in the family business, and now owns and operates three funeral homes in Clarksdale, Greenwood and Yazoo City. He and his wife, Lynn, live in Clarksdale with their three children.
Last week, the Mississippi Business Journal asked Espy about his takes on the key business issues-economic development, education, agriculture, small business, workforce training — and what he needs to do to win the race.
Mississippi Business Journal: What are the most pressing needs of people in the Second District?
Chuck Espy: The Second District does not resemble the rest of Mississippi and is grossly different than the rest of the nation. Poverty, economic development, healthcare and education are the most pressing needs of the people in the Second District. With over 192,000 people living in poverty, nearly 168,000 people without healthcare, over 10% of our people unemployed, over 9,700 manufacturing jobs leaving the district since 2000, and with education underfunded and with the lowest college educated population in the country, it is obvious that the Second District is moving in the wrong direction under our current congressional leadership. As the Second District is extraordinary, the strategies needed to solve the problems must be nontraditional and innovative in order to break the vicious cycle of hopelessness and poverty.
MBJ: What are your ideas for addressing those needs?
CE: Here are a few:
• Expanding and reforming the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to provide the necessary tax relief to move working families out of poverty and to make housing more affordable by increasing the EITC’s benefits based on national median housing costs and by incorporating a supplemental credit within the EITC for families whose rent payment is 50% of their total earned income and basic EITC benefit.
• Reforming community enterprise zones to provide incentives and tax breaks for companies to invest in the Second District and sponsor job training initiatives, and giving community decision-making boards of regional development authorities more power in determining how grant money is spent.
• Providing universal workforce training in high-tech industries and small business training to manufacturing workers and low-income workers under the auspices of the Labor Department’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Program, the companies that employ the workers, community colleges, and the Workforce Investment Board.
• Increasing the number of farmers eligible for loans from the Small Business Administration.
• Providing federal farm assistance for farmers to start their own processing companies on a collective basis; farmers will receive assistance from U.S. Department of Agriculture extension agents.
• Building more rural health clinics and school clinics to focus on preventative care and upgrading services (such as non-emergency medical transportation) for existing clinics.
• Expanding the Health Coverage Tax Credit for trade-impacted workers.
• Providing more incentives such as increased medical education scholarships and loan forgiveness for physicians to practice in the Second District (since 21 out of the 23 counties in the district have a shortage of primary care physicians).
MBJ: What are the most promising methods you see for economic development in the Delta, both short-term and long-term?
CE: By working closer with the congressional delegation, chambers of commerce, Delta Regional Authority and the Mississippi Economic Council, among others, we can work better to provide recruitment strategies to attract new industries in the region and develop a retention plan for businesses. In addition, the focus on job creation, job loss, and company satisfaction will be an important goal during my tenure.
MBJ: How best can government agencies and private resources help develop small business in the Delta?
CE: Government agencies can best help develop small business in the Delta by focusing their budget priorities from consumption of revenues to targeted tax incentives for small business development by streamlining their operations and weakening some burdensome regulations on small business. Private entities can invest in and sponsor job-training initiatives and create jobs in the Delta under the auspices of community enterprise zones and other government incentives.
MBJ: How do you think education in the Second District needs help the most, and how can it happen?
CE: The main problem with education in the district is that it is flagrantly underfunded on local, state and national levels. We must really ‘leave no child behind’ — not just in rhetoric, but also in action. Hence, we should increase instead of cutting back investment in education from the federal level, specifically to reduce class sizes and increase teacher salaries.
MBJ: Workforce training is integral to recruitment and expansion of industry in the state. What else can we do to meet the needs of businesses that invest in Mississippi?
CE: A universal workforce training in high-tech industries and small business training to manufacturing workers and low-income workers under the auspices of the Labor Department’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Program, the companies that employ the workers, community colleges and the Workforce Investment Board is needed. These entities should combine their resources and companies should be required to put more of their resources in job training in order to make it more accessible to low income and unemployed workers. Ongoing professional development is an important tool in improving the performance and effectiveness of our workforce.
MBJ: With world oversupply of cotton, what plans do you favor to help Delta growers realize greater returns on their crop?
CE: Agriculture is an important industry in the Second District and needs a dedicated voice on the agriculture committee. I will be vigilant in making sure U.S. negotiators in the Doha round of WTO trade negotiations ensure that the U.S. enters into reciprocal trade agreements with our cotton competitors in other countries. Also, negotiators must make sure that existing cotton supply conditions are not a result of unfair trade practices and over-subsidizing of cotton by our foreign competitors. I will firmly support a 2007 Farm Bill that gives cotton a fair shot by extending current policy and making sure that the present budget baseline for cotton support stays in place. In addition to the benefits for farmers listed in my platform, I will also form an agriculture advisory committee to not only advise me on agricultural issues, but also to aid Second District farmers with marketing their cotton.
MBJ: Catfish farmers in the Delta are being pressured from nearly every angle of their business. What solutions do you favor to help them sustain stable, profitable operations?
CE: Catfish farmers should be able to compete on a level playing field with competitors by making country-of-origin labeling stricter so fish from other countries such as Vietnam are not allowed to be called catfish. I will push for a provision in the Doha round of WTO trade negotiations to have safeguard agreements against foreign impostors and to invest in renewable energy to lower the cost of production for catfish farmers. I will also procure more federal aid to help catfish farmers with marketing and developing export strategies for their catfish. Finally, like my uncle, former Congressman Mike Espy, did in getting catfish placed in military dining halls and commissaries as a part of the Military Procurement Program, I will expand catfish to all international markets.
MBJ: With the way the campaign has begun, what kind of race do you see for this congressional seat, and what do you have to do to win it?
CE: I see this congressional campaign as a race for opportunity and prosperity for the Second District. The Second District is the most overlooked, underserved and most impoverished part of the state, and our citizens have been faced with hopelessness and poverty for far too long. Unfortunately, my opponent has had a hands-off approach to the cries of the people. He continues to present himself in a supporting role and not as a problem solver as he has run the Second District without a plan. I have always put people first and will present a plan for recovery by working with and representing all people. I believe I must make this an issue-based campaign, highlighting my policy vision for the Second District in contrast to my opponent’s apathetic and disconnected congressional leadership.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.