Joe Biden speaks to his supporters during the Get Out and Vote event at Tougaloo College’s Kroger Gymnasium Sunday, March 8, 2020.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy participated in a video conference Friday on racial equality in rural communities hosted by the campaign of Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president.

Espy, who is challenging incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in the November general election, said one reason he is supporting Biden is because of the Democratic nominee’s plan to help people of color in rural America.

“I believe he is going to be president not only because he is capable, but also because he has empathy,” said Espy, who endorsed Biden when the former vice president visited the state earlier this year.

Black farmers and rural landowners have struggled, Espy said during the conference, because of generations of a lack support from the United States Department of Agriculture to garner access to capital and credit.

Espy, who was the first African American secretary of agriculture in the nation’s history, said he worked to change the agency to make it more responsive to minority farmers, but he added there is more work to do. Biden has a plan and a willingness to correct those injustices, Espy said.

The video conference comes as the Espy campaign, running as the underdog, signals it will make a more aggressive effort than most Democrats running statewide to appeal to Black Mississippians and progressives.

Often in Mississippi, Democrats running statewide have tried to distance themselves from national Democratic candidates. Espy did not shy away from his support of Biden on Friday.

“I know Joe Biden has the capacity, the empathy, the experience and the knowledge to return this nation to some sense of normalcy,” Espy said on the video conference. “That is what we need.”

Expanding rural broadband, which Espy called a necessity, is also a key part of the Biden plan, Espy said.

The event was hosted by Mississippi native Trey Baker, who is Biden’s national director for African American engagement. Baker, who previously was on the staff of U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, the state’s lone congressional Democrat, was the city manager in his hometown of Grenada when he joined the Biden campaign.

He praised Espy and said he would be casting an absentee vote for him in November.

“This race is winnable because we have more Black citizens (about 37 percent of the total population) than any state in the nation,” Espy told Baker. “It is winnable because we know Mississippi is changing.”

He cited the recent, historic decision of the state Legislature to replace the 126-year-old state flag, which incorporated the Confederate battle emblem in its design, as proof of that change.

In 1986, Espy was elected as the state’s first Black U.S. House member since the 1800s. And after winning the presidency in 1992, Bill Clinton tabbed Espy as the nation’s first African American secretary of agriculture.

Espy said his experience as secretary of agriculture and of representing the second congressional district, which includes much of the state’s farmland, positions him to make a difference for the state’s rural community.

Hyde-Smith, who is the state’s first woman elected to Congress, served as the state’s commissioner of agriculture before being selected by former Gov. Phil Bryant to replace the retiring U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in the spring of 2018. She defeated Espy by eight points in the November special election for the right to finish out the remainder of Cochran’s term.

Hyde-Smith and Espy are now running for the new, full six-year term.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.