Mike Espy, down in Senate polls, turns to young Black leaders for advice

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Jarrius Adams speaks at a Black Lives Matter protest on Saturday, June 6, 2020, in Jackson. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Mike Espy was 32 years old in 1986 when he was elected Mississippi’s first Black congressman since Reconstruction.

He embodied the young political energy that produced Mississippi activists like Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers, and he immediately became considered one of Washington’s most promising political up-and-comers.

Now 34 years later, the 66-year-old Democrat is seeking to harness that energy once again in his bid to become the state’s first popularly elected Black U.S. senator. To win in November, he’ll need to generate a political perfect storm that includes swinging many moderate white voters his way and inspiring historic turnout among Black voters.

Digging further into the electoral math, Espy knows he needs young Black voters to turn out in droves. So on Monday night, he hosted a virtual event featuring four of the state’s most prominent young Black leaders and asked them the question: “What can my campaign do to get young folks engaged and involved?”

“I’m the old guy with the gray hair,” Espy said on the call Monday night. “I’m very aware that oftentimes, we speak too much. I’m here today to listen.” 

The four participants on the call were Jarrius Adams, 23, an activist who works for Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight; Maisie Brown, 18, a lead organizer of Jackson’s historic Black Lives Matter protest; Arielle Hudson, 22, a recent University of Mississippi graduate and Rhodes Scholar; and Jordan Jefferson, 22, a recent Jackson State University graduate and Harvard Law student. 

They suggested Espy focus on specific issues like student loan debt, improving public education and creating jobs to attract and retain young people.

“We see how our parents struggled growing up,” Adams said. “For some of us, there’s a direct connection to that and them being in Mississippi. We want better for our family. Some young people can’t really connect that politics and policy can change all that. The first thing they do is to go away or not deal with the problem, or they just don’t have the tools needed to deal with the problem.”

Espy faces incumbent Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in a November rematch of their 2018 U.S. Senate special election. Two years ago, Espy lost by eight points to Hyde-Smith. 

In continued efforts to fine-tune his political strategy this year, Espy is placing race at the center of his campaign in hopes that will be a problem for Hyde-Smith, whose track record on race has been called into question on a national scale.

On the call Monday night, Espy acknowledged that his 2018 campaign “could be criticized.” But he highlighted the fact that many of the roughly 100,000 Democratic voters who voted for former President Barack Obama in 2012 but didn’t turn out for him in 2018 were young Democratic voters.

“The question always comes up: ‘Why won’t y’all vote?’” Adams said. “I always say wait a minute, these same young people that don’t vote, these are your children, your grandchildren. So let me ask you that same question: ‘Why don’t they vote?’” 

One reason young people don’t vote, the leaders said Monday, is because they’re often not the focus of candidates’ resources, so they can’t always clearly understand what politicians care to do for them.

“You just have to make it matter,” Brown said. “Not too long ago, I didn’t understand what a congressman does. Why do you matter?… Make sure people understand what your role is and what they can impact by voting for you.”

Hudson shared that same critique of today’s politicians.

“I don’t think we’ve done a very good job with targeting young people specifically,” Hudson said. “Young people don’t often see candidates or agendas that represent them… Young people don’t feel they have a place right now in the political process. They’re not understanding why they should be voting for someone when none of the issues being talked about directly affect them in that moment.”

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Protesters hold signs as they march during the Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Jackson, Miss., Saturday, June 6, 2020.

Another focus of the conversation was the national Black Lives Matter movement that has already influenced historic change in Mississippi. After the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Brown and several other young activists planned what would become the largest civil rights demonstration in Mississippi since the 1960s.

A focal point of their protest was the state flag, which featured the Confederate battle emblem and flew for 126 years. Less than a month after the protest, Mississippi lawmakers — who for decades were apprehensive to even publicly acknowledge the banner — voted to remove the flag.

The young leaders on the Monday night call said Espy should work to take advantage of that type of energy.

“We’re very influenced, we’re on social media,” Jefferson said. “Instagram is about flexing, about what looks cool. Black Lives Matter looks cool, so people get involved. You’ve got to make voting cool, you’ve got to make Mississippi cool. Look at the Black Lives Matter movement, the trending stuff on Twitter. Many people don’t know what they’re talking about, but it’s cool to talk about it.”

Another theme of focus for the young activists on the call was the social and political climate in the state. With one of the highest rates of outmigration in the nation, Mississippi is plagued by young, college-educated residents leaving the state for better quality jobs and more appealing social environments. On the call, the activists said politics plays a direct role in perpetuating that trend.

“Some of our leaders, or people we’re supposed to call leaders like Sen. Hyde-Smith… she’s got the picture of her in a Confederate uniform, people still talking about her being on the front row of a public hanging,” Adams said. “That’s still circulating on the internet. I see the comments (from young people) saying that’s why they’re leaving the state. So before we can even get to a conversation about student loans or tax breaks, they’re leaving.”

Wrapping up the call, Espy said he’d “learned so much.”

“I’m listening, I’m taking copious notes,” he said. “If I’m privileged to be elected in 99 days, you’re going to be in that Senate office. I’m going to listen and be accessible. I’m going to respond to you guys.”

But he added: “None of this matters if we don’t vote in November.”