Mike Espy, 32 years after historic victory and fall, hopes to rise to moment again

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today

U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy speaks during the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss. Thursday, August 2, 2018.

In the oppressive heat of the Neshoba County Fair in July, Mike Espy gave what might have been his biggest speech to date since his historic political career flamed out in the 1990s.

At the Neshoba Fair, known as a safe haven for Republicans, not Democrats like Espy, he  could have crashed spectacularly in his effort to revive that political career.

In a raspy voice that always appears a little hoarse, the first African American from Mississippi elected to the U.S. House since the 1800s told the predominantly white fair crowd, “My name is Mike Espy. I am running for the U.S. Senate because I feel it is time to rise above this divisiveness, and this disunity and this chaos and go on to help lead the nation. There is so much more that unites us than divides us. … I am going to do my best to be accessible to all of you and to make independent judgments because no one can tell me what to do or what to think.”

Mike Espy has always been willing to aim high and not be afraid of the big moment.

Such was the case in 1986 when, as a 32-year-old attorney from Yazoo City, he won election to Congress from the Delta district where political icon Robert Clark, the first black person elected to the Legislature since the 1800s, failed in two previous attempts.

Espy made national news by winning.

About six years later, he took another bold move when he crafted a list for then-President-elect Bill Clinton, for whom he campaigned, explaining why he should be his secretary of agriculture. He slipped the list to Clinton during a banquet. Espy watched as the president-elect read the note during the banquet and gave a thumbs up indicating he would at least consider the suggestion.

Months later, after being tapped for the job by Clinton, the still-young Yazoo City attorney famously pledged during his Senate confirmation process, “to become the best secretary of agriculture that this nation has ever had.”

Espy’s lofty goals were crushed two years later when he resigned in disgrace over allegations and ensuing indictment on charges of accepting gifts from companies that were regulated by his agency. He was eventually acquitted, he says, “restoring his good name,” in 1998 and returned to Mississippi and hinted at running for political office again. However, he never did until long-time U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran announced in March he was stepping down for health reasons.

Espy, again recognizing the moment, was the first to announce his intention to run in the special election, effectively assuring that he would be the only Democrat of note running in the so-called jungle primary where all the candidates compete on the same ballot without party labels.

Espy said recently he is running now for the same reasons he did in 1986: “We need to do better for our communities. Whether it’s health care or jobs, our state needs leadership focused on bridging the divide and finding solutions.”

As accomplishments during his time in political office, he cites legislation he passed to develop a program helping with Delta infrastructure needs and said enacting such a program for the entire state would be a priority. He also touts his successful effort to jump-start the then-emerging catfish industry in the state by passing a bill in 1987 proclaiming a national catfish day leading to the Mississippi product being served on U.S. military bases throughout the world.

As secretary of agriculture he said he practiced conservative fiscal policy by reducing what he said was a then-bloated work force by 7,000 employees.

The state Republican Party has tabbed Espy as “too corrupt for the Clintons” because of his acceptance of gifts from entities regulated by his agency and his ultimate indictment. The Republican mantra does not add that he was found not guilty by a 12 person jury.

Republicans also claim he is “too liberal for Mississippi,” painting him as pro abortion, pro taxes and pro big government.

During his congressional tenure, Espy was viewed as a moderate, one of the few African American congressmen to work with Clinton in the early 1990s to create what was viewed at the time as the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. He also was a member of the National Rifle Association, which he said he had to join to be able to use a rifle range while in school at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Now Espy says he is a staunch supporter of the 2nd Amendment, but believes in sensible gun reforms, such as enhanced background checks.

And he did vote for the compromise in 1990 supported by then-President George H.W. Bush to raise some taxes, primarily on high wage earners in an effort to close the budget deficit.

On the campaign trail in 2018, Espy tries to paint himself as a moderate, but embraces many Democratic positions, such as working to expand Medicaid, to increase the minimum wage, and to ensure people with pre-existing condition have access to health insurance in direct conflict with efforts of the Trump administration. He said he supports equal rights regardless of race, gender or sexuality.

“I am a Democrat,” Espy said to a crowd of primarily progressive voters recently in west Jackson. “But I am a Mississippian first,” saying he would listen to any idea, regardless if from a Republican or a Democrat, that he believes will help his home state.

U.S. senate candidate Mike Espy, left, is joined by U.S. Sen. Corey Booker (D-NJ) as he speaks to media during a press conference at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum Friday July, 20, 2018.

While the Espy campaign touts a moderate message in hopes of attracting the roughly 25 percent of white voters he will need to prevail, he knows that to win he also will need an unprecedented (for a mid-term) turnout of African American votes. That is why he recently spent days in the Mississippi Delta, in the heart of his old congressional district where he was endorsed by the Congressional Black Caucus, including his successor and at times rival, Rep. Bennie Thompson.

U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Alabama, who played a key role in helping Democrat Doug Jones win a U.S. Senate special election in her home state earlier this year, told a crowd in Greenville that Espy can do the same. Furthermore, she says, Espy is the most experienced candidate in the race.

“The dysfunction in Washington is unacceptable,” she said. “We have to start sending people to Washington who understand compromise is not a dirty word. We have to send people to Washington who understand you never get everything you want … We need people like Mike in Washington.”

Bill Clark, CQ Roll Call

Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., shakes hands with supporters of Alabama Democrat Doug Jones after his victory over Judge Roy Moore at the Sheraton in Birmingham, Ala., on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017.

Before she departed, Sewell gave Espy a check for $5,000 from her campaign. Espy told the crowd he has now raised more than $2 million. He will be on television and on the radio with ads the final days of the campaign, but will save money for the get-out-the-vote effort, which Espy knows from his congressional campaigns is crucial to help with transportation and other issues in poor and underserved communities.

While in his old district, Espy is no longer the youthful attorney that made national headlines with his victory in 1986. He is a 64-year-old with two grown children, and one in high school. But, despite gray hair, he still cuts a youthful figure.

At an event, he pulls out a phone to show a couple of media members a video of him working out at his son’s gym (former Ole Miss and NFL player Mike Espy Jr.) with a litany of professional athletes, including NFL Super Bowl winner Fletcher Cox of the Philadelphia Eagles – a former Mississippi State standout also from Yazoo City.

He said the video, where he more than holds his on doing pulls ups, standing jumps and other exercises, was more to promote a healthy lifestyle than his campaign.

He posted on social media, “We hope to inspire Mississippians of all ages to get off the couch and to ditch the junk food. As best as I could, I was proud to work out with these athletes and I thank them for their endorsement and their personal coaching.”

The video could be seen as a reminder that many of the young voters he is now trying to attract were not born when he made history in 1986 with his election to Congress and then later became – based on research by Mississippi Today – one of only four cabinet secretaries from he state.

Espy grew up in Yazoo City near where motorist on U.S. Highway 49 can see firsthand the transformation from the central Mississippi hills to Delta flatland.

Many people in town know the Espy-Huddleston family if not Mike Espy.

“He will get a lot of votes here,” said Leroy Bonner, 69. Bonner – now retired from Mississippi Chemical – said he remembers Espy as a young attorney stopping by to talk with men who would congregate at a nearby gas station to socialize.

Espy’s confidence to jump in the political fray despite the odds might be inherited from his grandfather. Espy’s grandfather, T.J Huddleston, traveled the state telling people “I’m tired of our women having our babies in cotton field, and we need to build us a hospital. Give me a dollar for a brick, and I’ll build us a hospital,” Espy said in earlier interviews.

The Afro American Sons and Daughters Hospital in Yazoo City opened in 1928 and closed in 1972. Espy and his twin sister were born there.

Huddleston also started a string of funeral homes that were later operated by Espy’s father and his siblings.

While financially much more secure than many African Americans in Mississippi, a young Mike Espy still understood the racial divide of the time. He and his sister went to an African American parochial school until it closed after their sophomore year. The twins then were enrolled in the all white school before integration. There he said he endured many indignities, such as scuffles with white students, often when the teacher would leave the classroom for long periods of time as if encouraging such action, racial epitaphs and even being covered in white foam from a fire extinguisher in class.

But in his official congressional bio from the 1980s, Espy stressed, “Relative to the civil rights experience of snarling dogs and whips and things, it was pretty tame.”

His senior year the schools integrated and Espy quickly became a leader among the African American students leading protests to try to garner more equal treatment and serving as president of the black students.

He recently said proudly that Mike Espy Drive now goes in front of what was that high school.

“I have fond memories of Yazoo City,” said Espy, who now lives in Madison County. “It is where I learned the importance of hard work and service from my father and grandfather.”

Eventually, after a stint practicing law in his hometown, Espy wound up on the staff of then-Secretary of State Ed Pittman and later served as a deputy attorney general. It was during his tenure in state government that he began to become more political, opting to run for the congressional seat in 1986 when Clark announced he would not be a candidate again.

Espy’s storied rise in politics from being the first African American in modern times elected to Congress from Mississippi to being the first African American agriculture secretary came to a crashing halt when in a midst of an investigation he was forced to step down by the Clinton administration.

Later he was indicted on 39 counts. In a report, the special counsel wrote, “This investigation showed how our leaders can be compromised in their decision-making obligations and how others used unlawful means to influence public policy. Espy gained substantial personal benefit, receiving a multitude of gifts from persons and entities whose conduct he was supposed to impartially regulate. The donors, in return, gained access to Espy; the influence this gave them over his decisions can never be measured. The integrity of the federal decision-making process, the potential safety of the American food supply, and the American public’s trust in the impartiality of government all suffered.”

There were multiple guilty pleas and fines levied against the entities providing the gifts. But Espy was acquitted of all charges, the jury saying there was no evidence that he provided any favors for the gifts.

Asked recently if he used bad judgment in accepting the gifts, Espy said, “My departure from USDA (the Department of Agriculture) has been reported on extensively. Bottom line – I put my trust in friends, and that trust was misplaced.”

At any rate, Espy returned to the state to practice law – until this year when he opted to seize on what he again believes is his moment.

Click here for Mississippi Today’s full coverage of the historic runoff election between Cindy Hyde-Smith and Mike Espy.