Analysis: Espy invites questions, Hyde-Smith begrudgingly engages with media

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today / Report for America

Mike Espy speaks to media after the Leaders Luncheon and Accountability Session at New Horizon Church Wednesday, November 14, 2018.

At least twice last week, Democratic Senate candidate Mike Espy found himself surrounded by members of the media as he answered campaign questions.

On Saturday, Espy campaign aide Sam Coleman repeatedly said, “One last question. We have another appointment,” as journalists fired question after question, Espy answering each one.

None of the questions, though, were about Espy’s lobbying work for the Ivory Coast during a 2011 civil war, which resulted in its then president facing charge of murder, rape and torture at The Hague.

As Espy walked away, he got a question on that subject.

He paused: “I want to answer your questions.”

Juxtapose that with Espy’s opponent, Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, who during public appearances, has refused to answer questions about her comments about sitting on the front row of a public hanging if a supporter asked her to attend.

Time and again during a news conference the day after the comments surfaced, she simply said the official statement her campaign released would be her only comment. A Washington Post story published over the weekend also noted that Hyde-Smith repeatedly deflected questions from the Capitol press corps, repeating, “We’ve already made a statement.”

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That sequence last week highlights the different strategies of the two candidates, who will vie in a runoff election Nov. 27 to replace long-time Sen. Thad Cochran, who resigned in March for health reasons.

The Espy campaign has embraced questions from the press. Hyde-Smith has begrudgingly interacted with the media.

That dynamic is among the many that make Tuesday night’s first and only debate between the two candidates so interesting. Both candidates will be required to answer media questions for an hour on statewide television in a debate sponsored by the Farm Bureau and WLBT.

If nothing else, Hyde-Smith’s comments, including the public hanging statement, and a perception that Hyde-Smith needs intense handling by aides have made people curious about Tuesday night’s debate, said Marty Wiseman, a political science professor at Mississippi State University and the former director of the school’s Stennis Institute of Government.

In the months leading up to the big showdown, Hyde-Smith has repeatedly dodged direct questions from Mississippi Today. For example, at the groundbreaking for Alternative Energy Development-Copiah, Hyde-Smith refused to answer whether she believes the accepted science that climate change is man-made.

Days later at a public campaign event in Madison, Hyde-Smith’s campaign manager, Jordan Russell, physically blocked a Mississippi Today reporter from speaking to Hyde-Smith, telling the reporter, “I think you’ve had plenty of questions. I think you’ve gotten more questions than any other reporter.” But there were no other reporters at the event.

Hyde-Smith’s unwillingness to talk to reporters was on full display during the controversial Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court as she begged off on responding to a question from a Mississippi Today reporter.

The reporter had asked the senator about her vote to begin the confirmation process to which Hyde-Smith responded she was “not ready to publicly comment.” The press release on Hyde-Smith’s vote, however, was sent minutes before the reporter questioned her. Her comments, included in the release stated that “voting for Kavanaugh was easy.”

This behavior is a departure from how Hyde-Smith interacted with the media and others during her tenure in the Mississippi Senate and as state commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce before Gov Phil Bryant appointed her as the interim senator to replace Cochran.

Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton

“She was a fireball,” said state Sen. Pro Tem Terry Burton, R-Newton, of Hyde-Smith’s three terms as a Mississippi legislator.

For instance, people warned her not to pick a fight with then-Republican Gov. Haley Barbour over the issue of eminent domain in the 2000s. Hyde-Smith supported legislation to prevent governments from taking land from property owners for the use of private entities.

During debate on the Senate floor, Hyde-Smith said she was not worried about the political fallout of taking on Barbour and warned her colleagues of the consequences of opposing her position on protecting property rights.

“‘You need to get you a pair of asbestos underwear,’’ Hyde-Smith told those supporting the governor at the time. ‘‘You’re going to need it because somebody is going to light up your rear end.’’

Barbour won the legislative battle against Hyde-Smith, but Farm Bureau sponsored an initiative that voters approved preventing government from taking private land for private use.

Then there was a time during a heated floor debate with powerful Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Robertson, R-Moss Point, when he said she was being untruthful. She retorted that she did not lie and that if she said it was Easter then people should start dying Easter eggs.

At one state Senate subcommittee meeting, she lambasted members of the Department of Mental Health for what she believed to be unnecessary spending on staff housing.

During Tuesday’s debate, she will have to rely on that experience as there will be nowhere to hide on the debate stage in front of television cameras broadcasting the debate statewide.

Her campaign apparently understands that.

While Espy was answering questions Saturday from the media, the Hyde-Smith campaign announced it was canceling scheduled events for the day to conduct “debate preparation.”

Larrison Campbell contributed reporting.