As national reporters descended on Mississippi for the first debate of a heated U.S. Senate campaign, advisers for Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith fretted over a poll showing a once comfortable lead over opponent Mike Espy had narrowed to just five points.
They knew that the firestorm from a video leaked nine days earlier of Hyde-Smith making what she later described as a joke about sitting on the front row of a public hanging needed to be addressed. Days after that video surfaced, a second video emerged in which Hyde-Smith told a group of Mississippi State University students that perhaps voting should be made more difficult for liberals at other colleges.
Several major corporations including Walmart and AT&T subsequently asked for campaign contributions back. Activists on social media posted old photos of Hyde-Smith wearing Confederate military gear.
Despite attempts by Hyde-Smith and her supporters, including Gov. Phil Bryant, to play down the comment as a simple gaffe, her top strategists went into damage-control mode. Days of careful planning and discussion went into how Hyde-Smith would apologize, according to a senior Hyde-Smith campaign adviser, who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak to the media about the matter.
The plan the campaign and Hyde-Smith ultimately agreed to: Give an apology directly to the voters without the risk of what the adviser called distortion by the press.
“She wanted to do that, just basically talking straight to the people,” said Melissa Scallan, communications director for Hyde-Smith’s campaign. “She got to do it on camera directly to everybody herself. There wasn’t any particular reason for it other than that’s what she wanted to do, address it there with people watching.”
Familiar themes repeat at debate: Public hangings, African despots, pre-existing conditions and ducking the media
During the apology, delivered during Tuesday night’s senatorial debate, she looked down at a notepad and read aloud.
“You know, for anyone offended by my comments, I certainly apologize,” Hyde-Smith said. “There was no ill will, no intent whatsoever in my statements.”
She quickly pivoted to casting herself as the victim of a political hitjob.
“I also recognize this comment was twisted, was turned into a weapon to be used against me, a political weapon used for nothing but personal and political gain by my opponent. That’s the type of politics that Mississippians are sick and tired of.”
Many people saw the recited apology as lukewarm and insincere.
First among them was Espy, a former Democratic congressman and agriculture secretary running to become the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate in Mississippi history.
“No one twisted your comments,” Espy said. “They came out of your mouth. I don’t know what’s in your heart — but we all know what came out of your mouth…. It’s caused our state harm. It’s given our state another black eye that we don’t need.”
Rukia Lumumba, of the People’s Advocacy Institute and Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in Jackson, noted reports that Hyde-Smith decided against apologizing earlier, fearing it would fuel the controversy.
“It’s important to question the moral aptitude of leaders who let ego guide their decisions rather than their moral compass. We have to question the moral integrity of the people we’re electing,” Lumumba said.
Even some people who believed Hyde-Smith’s apology to be heartfelt questioned why it took the senator nine days to deliver it.
“I thought it was a good statement,” said Austin Barbour, a Republican strategist. “I wish she would’ve given it the day after, but she didn’t. We wouldn’t be in this situation where it gave Espy momentum… I thought she did a fine job. She gave it what she needed it to do, and she tried to move past it. I think she did move past it.”
And the delay did not go unnoticed, especially by her political opponents who used it to question the sincerity of the apology.
“If you’re serving any state in the U.S. senate you should have better judgement than to use that language. And if for some reason you do stumble … there should be enough people around you to tell you you’ve made a mistake and own up to it and apologize immediately,” said state Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Roger Wicker in a separate senate race.
“I hope we get to a point where people don’t grow up in circles where this language is fun or acceptable.”
After the debate, Espy took issue with how Hyde-Smith delivered the mea culpa.
“That’s really unfortunate she said that but, then, she doubled down. She didn’t apologize until tonight for those thoughtless comments, but then she had to read it so that meant that that just was not heartfelt,” Espy said.
The volume of notes Hyde-Smith brought to the podium did not go unnoticed by the Espy campaign.
“It wasn’t in line with the terms and the conditions to bring that much information to the podium,” said Danny Blanton, Espy’s communications director. “We are not pleased with that.”
“She has showed time and again she cannot answer tough questions without notes. It is the same reason she sent her surrogate out to speak to her after the debate,” he added, referring to Wicker, who fielded questions from the media on Hyde-Smith’s behalf after the debate.
Blanton said the Espy’s campaign position was not to allow either candidate to bring notes to the stage, but had reluctantly agreed to a compromise where each campaign had one hour to prepare notes on a legal pad provided by debate sponsors, the Farm Bureau and WLBT-TV.
Blanton said the campaign tried to change the conditions, but “we knew we would not get another opportunity to debate so we didn’t pull out.”
But Scallan brushed off those complaints. Notes were included in the debate terms, she said, and the senator took advantage of that.
“They were allowed the same number and (she) did not get any preferential treatment,” Scallan said. “Once the candidates got there they were given a legal pad and they could write notes on there that they wanted to make sure and hit. But that was the only thing that they were allowed to have.”
LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, visited Jackson Wednesday with international civil rights leader the Rev. William Barber II to encourage voter turnout in the runoff. Brown said that ultimately the apology and its mode of delivery were beside the point.
“An apology is an acknowledgement that what you said was wrong, not an excuse of why you said (it) or how it got taken out of context,” Brown said Wednesday.
“What she said was wrong. There are thousands of black families, including my own, from this state who have been traumatized by racism and violent acts like hangings. I’ve got family members that left the state during The (Great) Migration that won’t come back because of the history of Mississippi and its violence towards black folks.
“So for her to actually say that and to not fully own it, and not to fully acknowledge that she was wrong, and what she said was wrong, and she understands why it’s wrong — that’s what I would have expected as an apology.”
Anna Wolfe and R.L. Nave contributed reporting.