Mike Espy, in final stretch of Senate campaign, hopes to overcome long odds in 2020

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Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Democratic U.S. Senate challenger Mike Espy greets a supporter while canvassing the Valley North subdivision on Oct. 23 in Jackson.

VICKSBURG — Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy, facing long odds in defeating incumbent Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, was recently reminded during a campaign stop in Warren County that he had overcome long political odds before.

During a weekend rally in the parking lot of the Greater Grove Missionary Baptist Church, Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs recalled how a Jackson television station had first reported on election night in 1986 that Espy had been defeated in what was his history-making campaign to become the state’s first African American U.S. House member since Reconstruction.

“But Warren County had not been voted, had not been counted,” Flaggs said. “(The television reporter) had to apologize” after Espy received enough votes in Warren County to carry him to victory against three-term Republican incumbent Webb Franklin.

Of the reversal, Espy told the crowd assembled outside the church, “I’m not saying God is a Democrat or a Republican, but God is good.”

Flaggs intermittently led the crowd in chants of “Go vote,” before adding, “We can do this. Let nothing stop you on Nov. 3.”

While an African American has won the 2nd District U.S. House seat every election since Espy first won it, there was skepticism in 1986 about whether a Black Mississippian could win a seat in Congress. Time and again, past candidates had come up short. Espy faces the same skepticism as he attempts to become the first Black Mississippian elected to statewide office as a U.S. senator.

But on the cool and overcast day where light mist was still occasionally falling, a small but enthusiastic crowd of about 75 showed up in the church parking lot wearing masks and socially distancing to hear from Espy. They believe Espy can make history again.

“I love Mike Espy,” said Lily Fae Pierre of Hinds County, who came out for the rally and was a vocal cheerleader as Espy spoke. “It is time for Mississippi to prove it is not so backward.”

Espy will begin a bus tour of the state on Wednesday, starting at 9 a.m. at the auditorium of the Boys and Girls Club in his hometown of Yazoo City. It is scheduled to end Sunday afternoon. Hyde-Smith also reportedly plans a campaign bus tour of the state this week, but information on the event was not immediately available.

Before speaking to the crowd this past weekend in Vicksburg, Espy did a live segment on MSNBC from the church. His segment was cut short because of a rally by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Espy was still able to appear briefly on the national cable news network between a speech by Biden’s wife, Jill, and Joe Biden. The short interview resulted in campaign contributions of more than $125,000 from across the nation before Espy left Vicksburg Saturday.

While Espy was campaigning over the weekend, incumbent Hyde-Smith was in Washington, D.C., as she and her Republican colleagues prepared to vote to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Hyde-Smith, who returned to Mississippi after Monday’s vote to confirm Coney Barrett, is one of the few incumbent U.S. senators up for re-election this year who chose not to debate her opponent.

“That is not disrespecting me. It is disrespecting you,” Espy told the crowd.

While Hyde-Smith might not be debating Espy, she recently made sure Mississippians remembered that just as Espy has broken down racial barriers, she has done the same in terms of gender.

“First woman to be elected state senator in my district, first woman to chair the Mississippi Senate Ag Committee, first woman to be elected Mississippi Ag commissioner, first woman to be elected to Congress from Mississippi,” she recently tweeted. “I’ll never stop working to move Mississippi forward.”

Meanwhile in Vicksburg, Espy looked back on his bouts of asthma in the 1950s growing up in segregated Yazoo City with the death from an asthma attack in 2019 of Houston resident Shysteria “Shy” Sharder Shoemaker. She was transported first to the hospital in Houston to receive treatment only to learn that the emergency room had been closed. Shoemaker died before she received the treatment she needed in another northeast Mississippi town.

In the 1950s, Espy was rushed to the hospital for Black Mississippians in Yazoo County because of an asthma attack. He was near death because the hospital, started by his grandfather in the 1920s, was out of oxygen canisters. But his father rushed to the white hospital in town and successfully pleaded for an oxygen canister. Espy said that effort by his father saved his life.

Espy went on to tell the crowd that a Black child in Yazoo City had access to better emergency room care in the 1950s than many Mississippians — of all races — do today because of the closure of rural hospitals. He said expanding Medicaid to provide coverage to Mississippians who work in low paying jobs where health insurance is not provided would help to solve the problem by providing a source of revenue for rural hospitals.

Espy cited past U.S. senators from Mississippi for their area of expertise. He said in the 1960s-70s, James Eastland was known for his influence of federal judicial appointments, while during the same time period John Stennis was known for his efforts to site Ingalls Shipbuilding on the Gulf Coast. Later, Thad Cochran was known for his efforts to improve agriculture in the state.

“I want to be the father of Medicaid expansion in Mississippi,” Espy told the crowd.