Mike Espy is doing a balancing act as he runs for U.S. Senate in Mississippi.
As an African-American Democrat, Espy needs a strong voter turnout among black people, who make up 38 percent of the state’s population. But he can’t win without some white support in a conservative Southern state where voting patterns tend to break along racial lines. While most black votes go to Democrats, the white majority leans Republican.
Even as prominent African-American politicians, including U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, have traveled to Mississippi to endorse him, the 64-year-old Espy says he is reaching out to all audiences with a unifying message.
“I don’t care about race or religion or gender or party or sexual orientation or disability,” Espy told a diverse group of supporters at a recent reception in his Jackson campaign office, carefully pausing between each category.
“I’m going to be the senator for everybody,” he said.
Espy, a former congressman and former U.S. agriculture secretary, is one of three candidates trying to unseat Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith next month. The race could have national repercussions as the GOP tries to maintain its slim Senate majority.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith to serve temporarily when longtime GOP Sen. Thad Cochran retired amid health concerns in April. The winner of a special election will serve the last two years of the six-year term.
President Donald Trump campaigned for Hyde-Smith at an Oct. 2 rally in northern Mississippi, telling a cheering crowd: “A vote for Cindy is a vote for me.”
Espy grew up in Yazoo City in a prominent family that has operated funeral homes in the rural Mississippi Delta for 100 years. An attorney, he’s been a familiar face in Mississippi politics for a generation. In 1986, he became the first African-American to win a U.S. House seat in the state since Reconstruction. In 1993, he became President Bill Clinton’s first agriculture secretary.
Espy resigned the Cabinet post in 1994 amid a special counsel investigation that accused him of improperly accepting gifts. He was tried and acquitted on 30 corruption charges, but now the Mississippi Republican Party is running an ad that calls Espy “too corrupt for the Clintons” and “too liberal for Mississippi.”
Espy said he refused to accept offers of plea deals.
“I put my reputation on the line, went through a trial, went through 70 witnesses against me, went through the special prosecutor who spent $26 million against me and I was found not guilty. Because I was not guilty,” Espy told The Associated Press. “In fact, I was so not guilty, I was innocent.”
Espy said he was also trying to maintain his own political viability when he refused any plea deal.
“I wanted to run for office one day,” he said. “I didn’t want any misdemeanor charge over me at all.”
Mississippi hasn’t sent a black man to the Senate since Reconstruction or a Democrat since Ronald Reagan was president.
The South has been a Republican stronghold for two decades, and Republicans hold all but one statewide office in Mississippi. But Espy supporters point to signs of hope for Democrats this year in a U.S. Senate race in Texas and governors’ races in Georgia and Florida. They also point to Democrat Doug Jones’ victory in a 2017 special U.S. Senate election in Alabama.
Hyde-Smith served 11 years as a Democrat in the state Senate before switching parties in late 2010. Running as a Republican, she won statewide races for agriculture commissioner in 2011 and 2015. Bryant said he chose her as Cochran’s temporary successor because he considers her a solid conservative.
Another Republican is also trying to topple Hyde-Smith: tea party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who nearly defeated Cochran in a bruising 2014 Republican primary. Besides Espy, the other Democrat in the special election is Tobey Bernard Bartee, a former military intelligence officer who’s running a low-budget campaign.
Party labels won’t appear on the ballot, and if nobody wins a majority Nov. 6, the top two will advance to a Nov. 27 runoff. Espy is aiming for the runoff, hoping that Republicans will be splintered enough to prevent Hyde-Smith from winning outright.
Vicki Slater, a white attorney who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 2015, is backing Espy, who says he supports broad access to health care and a $15 minimum wage that he says could primarily help single mothers.
“He’s running against a woman,” Slater said. “But you know what the sad fact of life is? It’s that some men are better for women on women’s issues than some women are.”
Slater said troubling questions were raised about Supreme Court nominee, and now justice, Brett Kavanaugh, during his Senate confirmation. Hyde-Smith, the first woman to represent Mississippi in either chamber of Congress, tells voters she has a 100 percent record of supporting Trump. She supported Kavanaugh on the Senate floor and voted to confirm him.
Espy said Christine Blasey Ford was “believable” when she said Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in their teen years; Kavanaugh vehemently denies it. Espy also says Hyde-Smith voted for Kavanaugh’s confirmation out of party loyalty.
“As your senator, I’m not going to let anything or anyone rush me to judgment,” Espy said in a campaign email. “Not Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi. Not anyone from either party. Because when we put party first, all it does is divide us.”
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