Hyde-Smith slams Espy lobbying deal in Africa, draws new fire for ‘joke’ about making liberal voting harder

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

As a run-off between former U.S Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy and U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith becomes more likely, the candidates are embracing their historic potential of their candidacies

U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, already reeling from a controversial comment released earlier this week, downplayed a newly released comment she made earlier this month in which she suggested making voting “a little more difficult” for certain “liberal folks.”

A video published Thursday evening by Louisiana political blogger Lamar White Jr. shows Hyde-Smith standing outside her campaign bus at a Nov. 3 event in Starkville, on the edge of the Mississippi State University campus.

“And then they remind me that there’s a lot of liberal folks in those other schools who that maybe we don’t want to vote,” Hyde-Smith said to supporters. “Maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult. So I think that’s a great idea.”

It is unclear to whom Hyde-Smith is referring in the 17-second-long video. The Hyde-Smith campaign did not respond to a question about which schools she was referring to in the video.

Hyde-Smith made the comment on the same weekend that she said she would attend “a public hanging,” at a supporter’s invitation. The comment caused a firestorm and thrust race to the forefront of her runoff campaign versus Democrat Mike Espy, who’s running to become the state’s first African American ever elected to the U.S. Senate. It also renewed national interest in the runoff, leading to an influx in national contributions to both campaigns.

Influential Mississippians suggested on Thursday evening that Hyde-Smith’s comment was racially motivated. Mississippi State University, where Hyde-Smith made the comment, is 71 percent white. Just 18 percent of the Starkville campus’ student body is African American. The state is home to seven historically black colleges and universities.

“Obviously Sen. Hyde-Smith was making a joke and clearly the video was selectively edited,” said Melissa Scallan, spokeswoman for the campaign. “Now the liberal media wants to talk about anything other than Mike Espy’s record of corruption and taking $750,000 – and lying about it – from an African dictator now charged with war crimes, including murder, rape and torture.”

The Espy campaign sent a press release Thursday evening with the title: “Cindy Hyde-Smith crashes and burns on camera for the second time this week with comment on voter suppression.”

“For a state like Mississippi, where voting rights were obtained through sweat and blood, everyone should appreciate that this is not a laughing matter,” said Danny Blanton, spokesman for the Espy campaign. “Mississippians deserve a senator who represents our best qualities, not a walking stereotype who embarrasses our state.”

The video was posted just after 4 p.m. on Thursday by White, the publisher and founder of The Bayou Brief, a nonprofit news organization based in Louisiana. The website calls White “one of Louisiana’s most acclaimed online journalists and prominent progressive activists.”

White told Mississippi Today Thursday evening that the same source who sent him the “public hanging” video sent him the new video and said he had no reason to believe the video was doctored in any way.

The Hyde-Smith statement references a Fox News story published Thursday that details Espy’s lobbying for the Ivory Coast in 2010, then governed by President Laurent Gbagbo, who currently is on trial at the International Criminal Court for “crimes against humanity.” A statement from the Hyde-Smith campaign shared with Fox News said that Gbagbo is accused by the U.S. Department of State of murder, rape and torture.

According to the Fox News story, Espy reported at the time he ended the lobbying contract after reports of the unrest in the African country. But later documents from the Department of Justice revealed, according to a document Fox posted with its story, that he received his full, $750,00 payment before ending the contract.

“It’s incredible but true that Mike Espy was paid three quarters of a million as a registered foreign agent to lobby on behalf of a brutal dictator of the Ivory Coast,” said Melissa Scallan, communications director for the Hyde-Smith campaign.“Espy lied about how much he was paid…Mike Espy is clearly the most liberal candidate in Mississippi history.”

Espy, the former U.S. secretary of Agriculture, was lobbying for the Ivory Coast Cocoa and Coffee Board.

Espy’s spokesman told Fox News: “Secretary Espy worked on agricultural issues for international clients. Over the course of that work, he realized one of those clients did not pass the smell taste, so he terminated the contract, and then reported what he knew to the U.S. government.”

Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican who appointed Hyde-Smith to the Senate, tweeted on Thursday evening: “Espy must explain this crime on humanity to our bipartisan state media. Seeing as how it took a national news outlet to break the story, I’m sure they’ll have plenty of questions to ask.”

In a Thursday statement to Mississippi Today, Espy’s campaign said the Hyde-Smith campaign is trying to change the topic from her controversial comments and the fact she refused to apologize for them.

“Cindy Hyde-Smith had a chance to admit she was wrong, and instead of apologizing, she doubled down. Since that hasn’t worked, she’s trying to change the subject with a smear campaign against Mike,” Blanton said.

Contributing: Alex Rozier 

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