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There’s an unwritten rule in Mississippi politics: If you’re a Democratic candidate and you want to win your election, you need the blessing of Congressman Bennie Thompson.
Thompson, described by a newspaper’s editorial board when he was first elected to Congress as “your best political friend and worst political enemy,” is the Democratic kingmaker of Mississippi. He’s the party’s most powerful figure, and for nearly three decades he’s been the lone representative of African Americans in the Blackest state in America.
Thompson, who in less than five decades rose from a small-town alderman to a powerful chairman in the U.S. House of Representatives, has real sway with Black voters. His allies say he doesn’t just serve as the congressman to the 2nd congressional district, where Black voters make up 61% of the electorate — he serves as the unofficial congressman to Black Mississippians across the state.
“If a resident on the Gulf Coast has a problem, they call the congressman’s office,” said Corey Wiggins, executive director of the Mississippi NAACP. “He has never turned away a chance to help Mississippians, regardless of whether they live in his district. He represents the entire state, and that’s how he’s always operated.”
That sway with Black voters is why Joe Biden, the former vice president who was working to shore up the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, called Thompson in March and asked him to host a campaign swing through the state. And it’s why Mike Espy, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in November, has hitched his 2020 wagon to the congressman.
It’s one thing to need Thompson’s public support, but it’s another thing to receive it. Two years ago, when Espy ran against appointed Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, Thompson didn’t go to great lengths to publicly support him. There were some joint events and fundraising calls, but there weren’t many. Espy’s campaign ultimately fell short of key internal targets that year — most glaringly with Black voter turnout in Thompson’s district — and he lost by about 66,000 votes, or 7.5 points.
This year, as Espy faces Hyde-Smith in a 2018 rematch, is different. Thompson has thrown his complete support behind Espy, appearing with him at numerous public events, hosting Washington fundraisers for him, calling Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Espy’s behalf, and ensuring national Democratic Party brass included Espy in fundraising calls during the Democratic National Convention.
The two are working closely together in the final two weeks of the 2020 election to turn out as many Democratic voters as possible.
“There’s no daylight between Bennie Thompson and Mike Espy in this Nov. 3 election,” Thompson told Mississippi Today on Monday in an hour-long interview. “(Being Mississippi’s only Democrat) is too big a burden on my shoulders. I need help. Mike Espy has the expertise and the love for this state to get it done. So I wholeheartedly want him to come (to Washington) so I can share this disproportionate burden that I’m bearing on behalf of Democratic voters in the state of Mississippi.”
The working relationship between Thompson and Espy this year comes after their political careers, once seen in similar lights, diverged dramatically in the 1990s. In the late 80s and early 90s, Espy, a young congressman representing Mississippi’s 2nd congressional district, was seen as a rising star in the national Democratic Party.
Espy won elections by building coalitions between white and Black voters in the Delta. When former President Bill Clinton appointed Espy U.S. secretary of agriculture in 1993, several people ran in a special election to replace him.
One of the candidates was 45-year-old Bennie Thompson, whose political career was inspired by civil rights activism. He’d served as alderman and mayor of the town of Bolton, and later as a Hinds County supervisor. Thompson won that special election to replace Espy in Congress, and he has won 12 subsequent elections for the seat.
Espy, meanwhile, fell out of political limelight when he resigned as agriculture secretary in 1994 amid allegations of illegally accepting gifts. Though a federal jury acquitted Espy of all charges in 1998, he remained out of politics for close to 20 years, until he announced his bid in the 2018 Senate race.
Now 72 years old, Thompson is the longest-serving member of Mississippi’s congressional delegation, and he has built a robust political network that touches every county of Mississippi. And this year, he’s using that network to revive Espy’s political career and send him to the U.S. Senate.
“Every time there’s an opportunity to work together, we do,” Thompson said. “We have a day planned on Election Day. There’ll be some areas of my district that I’ll tell him, ‘Mike, you don’t need to have your folk over here. We got your back. You need to go over to Meridian, or Tupelo or Biloxi or Hattiesburg, outside the second district.’ We will free him up from a resource standpoint and a manpower standpoint to work in other parts of the state.”
Thompson said he’s worked hard for Espy this year because the campaign has operated at a more sophisticated level than it did in 2018. Espy’s path to victory, Thompson says, is clear.
“I think he’s going to win because he retooled his campaign from two years ago,” Thompson said. “He’s targeted the voters that he’s trying to touch, those infrequent voters are coming based on the targeting that went with it. We now have a seasoned campaign staff based on certain expertise they didn’t have two years ago. And he’s raised the necessary money to have a credible campaign.”
For 40 years, Republican Sen. Thad Cochran held the state’s Senate seat that is up for grabs in November. Thompson and Cochran, though serving in opposing parties, maintained a close working relationship, regularly meeting and discussing how they could champion legislation that would help Mississippians.
Thompson, who speaks fondly of the late senator and his legacy for Mississippi, said Hyde-Smith hasn’t adequately continued Cochran’s ability to help Mississippi’s most vulnerable.
“Thad Cochran set a high bar. As you know, on his perch (as Senate appropriations chairman), he procured more resources for the state of Mississippi than any other senator in the country,” Thompson said. “You have to temper that with the fact that for every dollar we send to Washington, we get three dollars back. So basically we are dependent on the largesse of the federal government. And if, for whatever reason, we have a person who doesn’t understand that, I don’t care how proud you are, you’re still a representative of a state that’s poor.”
He continued: “I wish her well, but the bar is real high for her to succeed. And unless she changes her trajectory, she will have a tough ticket in Washington.”
As is the case across the nation, race is a central theme of the 2020 Mississippi Senate campaign. Espy, who has acknowledged he needs near record African American turnout to win in November, has focused his campaign on race. He’s been more intentional in 2020 than he was in 2018 about discussing his upbringing in racially polarized Mississippi: how he integrated his high school, how his grandfather founded the state’s first Black hospital, and how he’s worked his political career to build coalitions of different races and political bents.
Hyde-Smith, meanwhile, has made several gaffes when discussing race, including saying on the 2018 campaign trail she would “be on the front row” of “a public hanging” with a supporter.
Thompson, in the Mississippi Today interview, said Hyde-Smith lacks “a sensitivity to African Americans.”
“I think you are the sum total of your experiences,” Thompson said. “If your lot in life has been around a specific group of people, and you’ve been void of African Americans, then that’s who you are. And so while some say you might be prone to gaffes, that’s really who you are. Fortunately, that’s not Mississippi. You can’t talk about hanging and not understand the history of hangings or lynchings in this state and how that’s not, in the eyes of most Black people and a lot of white people, something you brag on. And so I think that sensitivity to issues of race with Cindy Hyde-Smith is just not there.”
Thompson is well aware that Mississippi has never elected an African American in a statewide election. Mike Espy would not only be the first Black senator from Mississippi elected by popular vote, he would be just the eleventh Black senator in the nation’s history. The congressman, who calls himself “an eternal optimist,” said he believes Mississippians are ready to take that historic step on Nov. 3.
“He can elevate the standard, he can help break the glass ceiling of African American elected officials in this state,” Thompson said. “He would be unique. He was the first African American elected to the House since Reconstruction, and he’ll be the first African American elected to the Senate since Reconstruction. So we’ll have a twofer in Mike Espy.”