BOLTON – In the 1960s, Bennie Thompson, a then Tougaloo College political science student, was in the Mississippi Delta trying to register people to vote on behalf of civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer’s congressional bid.

“I was talking to my mother, and she was saying you know we don’t vote here in Bolton,” Thompson recalled late one afternoon sitting in a modest conference room in his congressional office in tiny Bolton in western Hinds County. “It was a shock to me that I was up in Sunflower County helping register black people to vote and even in my hometown they didn’t enjoy the same luxury.”

Thompson’s auto mechanic father, who died in 1964, the year of passage of the federal Voting Rights Act designed to ensure minorities were not denied the right to vote, never voted. His mother, a school teacher, did and most likely her first vote cast was for her son when he ran and was elected to the board of aldermen in his hometown of Bolton in 1969.

While Thompson won that election as he has the multiple elections since then, it took a ruling of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to force the local election commission to seat him and two other African Americans in the Bolton city government.

It could be argued that Thompson has progressed from that first election to become for the past 25 years the most powerful African American politician in Mississippi. He has since 1993 represented the majority black 2nd Congressional District, which he proudly points out is the district where Hamer ran, albeit unsuccessfully, those many years ago.

On the walls of the reception area of Thompson’s Bolton congressional office are an array of items ranging from black empowerment paintings to a rather large mounted deer head to photos of Thompson and his hunting buddies. It is easy to forget that the modest office houses the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee. It is not unusual for Thompson, dressed in shorts and golf shirt on this day, to receive top secret updates on national security from that office.

If Thompson’s aspirations are fulfilled this November, there will be a Mississippi African American holding electoral higher office than his.

For that to occur, Mike Espy, viewed by many as a Thompson rival, must win the special Senate election scheduled for November to replace veteran U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, who stepped down in March because of poor health.

Thompson has endorsed both Espy and state Rep. David Baria of Bay St. Louis, the Mississippi House Democratic leader, who also is running in November in the regularly scheduled U.S. Senate election against  incumbent Roger Wicker, a Tupelo Republican.

“Our challenge is how do we do our best to elect two good people on the Senate side?” Thompson said. Both candidates are considered longshots, but help from Thompson could lessen the odds, especially for Espy, who does not face, as Baria does, the difficult task of running against an entrenched incumbent. Espy will be running in the special election against state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville, a Tea Party favorite, and former Republican state Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith, appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant to replace Cochran until the election. Gautier Democrat Tobee Bartee is also in the contest.

Mike Espy became the first African American elected to Congress from Mississippi since Reconstruction when to much national acclaim he captured the 2nd District seat in 1986. In 1993, he stepped down to become secretary of agriculture in the Bill Clinton administration. At that time, Thompson was viewed as a political powerhouse in the Jackson area as a Hinds County supervisor. But Mike Espy’s brother, Henry, mayor of Clarksdale, was viewed as the favorite to follow his brother in Congress.

Thompson won the special election and has never looked back. In 2010, he defeated Henry Espy’s son, Chuck, now mayor of Clarksdale, in a Democratic primary.

Asked about his relationship with Mike Espy, Thompson said, “I am on record supporting him.”

Thompson’s endorsements have not always been easy to come by. Often, he stays out of the machinations of state elections. In 2008, when former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove was running in another Senate special election for a seat vacated by an early retirement by Trent Lott, Thompson published a sample ballot. The sample ballot marked all the Democratic candidates with the exception of the special senate election, which was left blank.

Thompson said at the time he voted for Musgrove, but did not endorse him. He cited as reasons not to endorse Musgrove his reluctance to fully embrace Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and his calling of a special session as governor to allow passage of legislation to limit the ability to file lawsuits against businesses and medical providers.

Some political observers at the time cited the lack of a Thompson endorsement as fatal to the Musgrove campaign. A high turnout among African American voters, who tend to vote Democratic, is viewed as a must for a Democratic candidate to have a chance of victory in Mississippi.

Perhaps, some contend, a high turnout among black voters, coming close to matching the numbers from the two Obama elections, and a typical smaller turnout in mid-term elections among other groups would give Espy and perhaps even Baria a chance. That is more likely to occur, though, if Thompson is an active campaigner this summer and fall.

Thompson says the November elections are more important than most.

“I have served when Democrats were in the majority as well as in the minority in the House and Senate,” he said. “I am firmly convinced with Donald John Trump in the White House, if we are going to save this country from ourselves, we have to have a Democratic House and Senate. Otherwise, a lot of the past polices that have made us great as a nation will no longer be in place. And I don’t want to be privy to the demise of this great country.”

U.S. Senate Democratic candidate David Baria delivers his political speech during the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss. Thursday, August 2, 2018. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Asked if he would be active for Espy and Baria, Thompson said, “If I am asked my opinion on what they should do in their campaigns, I will be more than happy to share it with them. But I think a candidate runs his or her own campaigns. I respect that.”

Thompson did radio commercials, which included the familiar Bennie Thompson campaign jingle, for Baria to help him win a hard-fought Democratic primary in June.

Of Thompson, Espy said, “Congressman Bennie Thompson is a friend and a leader in the Congress. I welcome his support in the upcoming campaign and I appreciate what he has already done to support our effort.”

Marty Wiseman, the former director at the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute of Government, who still teaches political science classes, said there had been “ongoing reports” that the Espy-Thompson relationship is not strong. He said if Thompson, as has been reported, is 100 percent behind Espy, it could be significant for the special election.

“He is in a pretty safe congressional district,” Wiseman said. “If Bennie Thompson pulls out all the stops, it could make a difference. He has a pretty strong network over there.”

Thompson will be on the ballot in November, but facing what is expected to be only token opposition from Reform Party candidate Harris Irving and independent Troy Ray. But that opposition means Thompson will be out on the campaign trail where he could tout not only his candidacy but also that of Espy and even Baria.

The public perceptions of Espy and Thompson are vastly different.

Political columnist Charlie Mitchell wrote, “Thompson tosses grenades and walks away. Espy invites people to the table to share ideas. Thompson takes grains of truth and spins them into grievances. Espy takes what’s offered as truth, then seeks verification and solution.”

Thompson has been accused of race baiting, such as the time he referred to conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, an African American, as an “Uncle Tom,” a term used to refer to blacks who work for the white agenda to the detriment of the African American community as a whole. In some circles, people accuse Thompson of refusing to meet with white constituents — a myth that dissipates if you sit in the waiting room of his district office long enough.

State Republicans believe that Thompson is so toxic or so disliked by a large segment of Mississippi’s white community that they try to use association with him to hurt white Democrats in the state as evidenced by a Republican party official associating Thompson and Attorney General Jim Hood. Hood is Mississippi’s only statewide elected Democrat and viewed as the party’s best shot to win the office of  governor since 2003.

Lucien Smith, chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party

“Bennie Thompson and Jim Hood are the Mississippi Democratic Party. They are obviously popular with their base but out of step with Mississippians on policy and politics,” said state Republican Party Chair Lucien Smith.

Past state Republican chair Jim Herring said, “I am not a fan of Bennie Thompson. When I was chair we worked hard to recruit candidates to run against him. He is basically a socialist. Nothing personal. I am just not a fan.”

Thompson brushed off the criticism.

“People write what they want and most of those people have never even had a conversation with me,” he said recently.

He added, “I have been married to the same woman for 50 years. I have lived in this town (Bolton) for all 70 of my years. I have belonged to the same church, not denomination, the same church my whole life. I am not anything other than somebody who decided very early in life he wanted to try to make a difference in this state. I ran for public office when I was 20 years old.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., left, greets Aretha Hill and her husband, Charles, as they prepare to vote in Bolton, Miss., Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2006. Thompson and his wife were exiting the polling post when they ran into their old friends.  Credit: Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

“I went to school here. I raised my family here and you know I am basically a Mississippi home grown product.”

Early in life, as a political science student at Tougaloo, he said meeting such people as Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and Hamer, all giants in the civil rights movements, helped shape his political life.

“That kind of exposure helped convince me my life’s work was here in the state of Mississippi,” he said.

He still believes in the lessons he learned at Tougaloo from folks like King and Hamer, who came to the private school because they were not welcomed during that era at state-supported schools.

Thompson said he believes his mission is to support legislation to help the poor and underprivileged, but also the farmers, sometimes wealthy farmers of his district.

“I am not trying to keep anybody away from the table, but I damn sure want enough chairs at the table to make sure it is representative of who we are as a nation,” he said.

The question is whether other Democrats from Mississippi will be joining Thompson at that table in Washington, D.C., as a result of this November’s elections.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story and several others on our site misidentified U.S. Senate candidate Tobey Bartee as a Gautier city councilman. According to his campaign website, he was most recently an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Each story in which Bartee is misidentified has been edited. We regret the errors.  

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.