Mississippi Today’s Bobby Harrison and Geoff Pender talk with former Mississippi journalist Karen Hinton, a Jones County native who became an adviser to politicians such as Mike Espy, Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio, and later made national news as part of #MeToo movement.

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Bobby Harrison: [00:00:00] Hello, welcome to The Other Side. I’m Bobby Harrison, a political reporter for Mississippi Today. And I’m joined today by my colleague, fellow political reporter Geoff Pender. Geoff, how you doing? 

Geoff Pender: [00:00:17] Hey Bobby. 

Bobby Harrison: [00:00:18] Okay. And Geoff, I’m excited today that we have Karen Hinton who is like me from Jones County, West Jones High School and Jones County Junior College.

We were there about the same time in those two places.  Karen, how you doing? 

Karen Hinton: [00:00:33] I’m doing great. And I just want to say thank you so much for having me on your podcast. I’m delighted to be catching up with an old friend and to be making  new ones, Geoff, and the viewers, listeners to your to your podcast.

Bobby Harrison: [00:00:50] Well, I mean, we’re excited to have you because you. I’ll let Geoff get started, but I just wanted to talk to you sort of about your career because your career started as a journalist and then went into a political consultant and communications on the highest level in the nation.

And  so I’ll let Geoff get started asking about those things. 

Geoff Pender: [00:01:06] Sure. And Karen, we’re just happy to see Bobby was being honest about really knowing you. We had some doubts there, but yeah, I wanted to see if you could give us a brief synopsis of your career to date, how you came to be a communications consultant for some of the most powerful politicians in the country. New York city Mayor, Bill De Blasio. I believe you worked for Mike Espy, Ron Brown, if I’m correct on that. Can you give us a little bit of your background and as I understand now, you pretty much are focusing on writing. 

Karen Hinton: [00:01:39] Yes. Yes I am. Well, you know, I’m 62 years old, so I’ll try to keep this as short as possible.

But bear with me. I want to give everything back to Mississippi because that’s where I got my start. And it was in high school at West Jones and then at Jones County Junior College, and then Ole Miss where I really learned how to become a writer. I don’t know that I’m a great writer even today.

But that’s where it all started. And then of course, politics resulting from being a political reporter at the Jackson Daily News, which no longer exists. But it was the afternoon newspaper way back when, in the eighties, after I finished Ole Miss and where I got my first job and I covered the Haley Barbour Johnston, his Senate race, but more importantly, the Robert Clark with Franklin congressional race in the second district.

And Robert Clark, unfortunately lost. Cause I really highly respected him and wanted him to win. And after I worked for him in 1984, I was his press secretary, but then my Mike Espy ran and he won and he wanted me to go to Washington with him and be his press secretary. So that’s how I ended up in the nation’s Capitol and where I really learned as much as I could learn by working for Mike Espy, and, you know, working also with other democratic leaders who, who highly valued Mike Espy too.

And I got to know many of them,  Tony Quilla. Dick Gephardt, even Nancy Pelosi was a young congresswoman at the time. So it was a tremendous experience that I look back on today was such fun memory. So everything connected to Mississippi had everything to do with helping me in my career going forward.

I met Ron Brown who was chair of the Democratic National Committee. And was actually one of the most important people in getting Bill Clinton elected president. And so I worked as a press aide for him, and then went on to eventually find my way working for Andrew Cuomo, who was named an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, who then later became secretary of HUD.

And I was his press secretary. And then eventually found myself married one day to a New Yorker. Right. That does happen, but that’s only because I was working for Andrew Cuomo and that’s how I met him. And he had three children from a previous marriage and I had one from a previous marriage.

And so suddenly I had four children I was helping to take care of. And that’s when I started consulting. It’s the best way to be a mom and make money to work from home. And so I started consulting. But I, you know, after having worked with politicians for that length of time, I was able to build up a pretty good consulting arrangement with a number of clients who I value even today.

And then my husband later went on to take a job with Andrew Cuomo when he became governor of New York in 2010. And so we left Washington then and found ourselves in New York. And I continued to do consulting work until Mayor de Blasio, Bill de Blasio, who had worked for Andrew Cuomo as HUD secretary became mayor.

And he asked me I would help him with his press challenges. And so I went to work for him. And then later moved on to a PR firm in New York and had a freak accident on a treadmill, but suffered a pretty severe brain injury. And I had to lay low for a while to recover. So I really haven’t gone back into consulting, but I’m doing my own writing now.

And in fact, I’m working on a book on all that I just said in the past five minutes.

Bobby Harrison: [00:06:26] Go ahead. 

Karen Hinton: [00:06:28] There you have it. Yeah. That’s me in a nutshell. 

Bobby Harrison: [00:06:31] Well , you kind of got into the national spotlight as, I don’t know if it’s fair to say as part of the Me Too movement, if you will involving Cuomo who’s been in the news quite a bit lately. And can you just talk a little bit about that and just give your thoughts on that?

Karen Hinton: [00:06:51] I’ve known him since 1995 and have had a on and off again type of work relationship with him. Literally as well as personally because he and I did not always get along, and we had disagreements, but you know, like most people you work with in that way, you try to figure out ways to work through the problem.

And he and I did, especially after I married a man who was good friends with him and his father, Mario Cuomo so I really had a reason to try to always have a good relationship as I could with him even though he and I often would disagree on paths to follow when I was his press secretary at HUD, but nonetheless I did have some issues with him.

And later on,  several women came out publicly in New York and said that he had sexually harassed, sexually abused them when they worked for him when he was governor and the governor’s office. I was just taken aback by that, because I definitely have seen the same pattern of that behavior when he was at HUD.

It wasn’t as extreme as it has been in New York, but it was problematic for me as well as many other women I knew who worked at HUD. And I decided after I heard one woman in particular, talk about how he propositioned her in his office. She is very young. She’s 26, 25 years old. He is now my age. He’s 62, 63.

I was just appalled at that. And after all this time and all the things that I had been through, I just decided to tell my story as well so I gave an interview with the Washington Post about a moment where he had made a sexual overture to me long ago in 2000. And I talked about that with the Washington Post as a way to affirm what some of these much younger women are saying about him now.

And I just wanted to say, you know, I’m glad to see more women speaking out about sexual harassment, sexual discrimination in the workplace or anywhere, because I think it’s very important that we be more vocal about it so that we can really help many other women, no matter where they are in New York, Mississippi or California or wherever, deal with these types of issues and try to convince our nation’s leaders to deal with it legally, as well as ethically so that we can stop to see this pervasive problem often that occurs between men and women, especially in the workplace.

Geoff Pender: [00:10:16] Ms. Hinton, I recall I recently read an op ed you wrote I believe in the Daily news or whatever where you kind of took both Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo to task. I guess one thing I’m wondering, you picture maybe both of these offices as being politically progressive or whatever,  but you pointed out just some, I don’t know what you would call it, hostile environment,  some issues in both offices. How does that still exist in this day and age in such public,  high profile public places? How does it still go on? ,

Karen Hinton: [00:10:51] Well, I wish I knew the answer to that question because I would provide it, but I don’t. All I know is from the research I’ve done that sexual harassment, gender discrimination is pervasive. I mean, around 80% of women who are repped in survey will say they’ve suffered from some type of discrimination, sexual overture, harassment. And what often happens or so I’ve read from studies that have been done, that once it picks up a pattern, then it repeats itself. Like the boss may do something and it becomes noticeable to others underneath him and other men will start to do it because they think they can get away with it too.

Sometimes other women in the workplace will resent that certain women or be given more attention because a man is more attracted to that woman than other women, but that creates all kinds of tensions and problems. And then you see a pattern of it happening over time. It doesn’t stop unless something is done to call out the man or men who are part of discrimination or harassment.

And many times men don’t even see it as harassment, but women do. And finally there are laws being passed that deal with that very issue. A woman is feeling the impact of this and it stays with her and too bad if a man doesn’t understand it. They need to start understanding it. So that’s why there’s been all this sexual harassment training that’s been underway for quite a while, you know, over a decade or more.

But yet it continues to be a problem. So I don’t think it’s a Democrat or Republican issue. I just think it’s a man and women issue that we all need to acknowledge and deal with and openly. So there’s transparency around it. I think in my situation I just have worked for Democrats because I’m a Democrat, but I think Republican women, if they’re being honest, will say the same thing. And if you go back and look at all the sexual scandals that have happened in Washington, since there was Washington, D.C., you know, it’s been a problem for a long time. And even through the seventies when women’s rights took a hold and there was a feminist movement, it hasn’t really changed that much despite all of the women’s rights advocacy. So we still have to make it front and center. And I think when a leading politician, such as Andrew Cuomo, who became really well known during the COVID pandemic because he was on national news almost on a daily basis, talking about what New York was going through, suddenly had that become center stage for him. I think it’s important that the investigators looking into this take this very seriously and don’t just give him a, a slap on the wrist, but that they really take the problem seriously. So others in other states will do the same 

Geoff Pender: [00:14:43] yeah, I was gonna ask you your thoughts on New York attorney general. If I’m recalling correctly, she’s created an independent investigative panel. Do you feel confident that’s going to be thorough and there will be some results from that? 

Karen Hinton: [00:14:59] I do. They interviewed me, the investigators. And she does have private investigators who are taking this, who are handling the investigation. They’ve talked to me as well as many of the other women who have worked in the governor’s office, and they seem to me like you’re taking it very seriously. And so I have confidence that they will issue a report that will take these women seriously and won’t pass this up as confusion or as Andrew Cuomo has said, “misinterpretation of what he said, it was good intentions on his part, they just didn’t understand what he meant.”

I mean, and these harassment cases and sexual abuse cases, the perpetrator always comes up with another version of reality. And they twist things around in such a way so it makes a woman appear to be a liar or to be, you know, confused or incapable of understanding what was happening.

So that really has to stop and these women have to be taken seriously. And my incident happened so long ago  because it was in 2000, you know, two decades ago. And because it happened in California, not in New York is not that relevant to them, but I think they were interested in my observation on the pattern over time.

So we’ll see. We’ll see what happens when they issue their report. 

Bobby Harrison: [00:16:46] Karen, jumping around a little bit, you mentioned Espy and Robert Clark. That had to be an exciting time to be involved with, you know, candidate trying to be the first African-American elected to Congress, Mississippi and since reconstruction. And then, and of course, I think it was ’86 that Espy was elected. Can you just talk a little bit about that time and a little bit about how you got involved with those campaigns? You touched on it, but you can add some meat on that if you want to.

Karen Hinton: [00:17:15] Right. Well, I mean, sort of going back to Ole Miss, I majored in journalism and political science, so I had a good mix of  politics as well as being a reporter. And this was in the day of the book coming out, All the President’s Men. Bobby, you probably remember that book. But we all read it and we all saw the movie. And so many our age wanting to become journalists because who wouldn’t want to be. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman who played Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward? So that’s who I wanted to be, right? And the professor at Ole Miss who actually took me seriously, and I don’t know that many people took me seriously then  at Ole Miss, but he did.

And that was the former dean of the journalism department today Will l Norton. He recently resigned. And Will Norton was such a mentor of mine, and he really helped me become not only a better writer, but also just knowing how to investigate and report. And he really set the pace for me when he was a journalism professor. He later went on to be dean at the University of Nebraska I think it was, and then came back to Ole Miss as dean and did a fabulous job there building the journalism department. You know,  Let me quickly take an aside here and say he faced some criticism over emails between himself and a funder, former Ole Miss graduate and donor big donor fundraiser, Bart. I’m blanking on his first name. Blake Bart. 

Bobby Harrison: [00:19:17] I think that’s right. 

Geoff Pender: [00:19:18] Tartt, Blake Tartt I believe.

Karen Hinton: [00:19:20] Tartt, I may have his last name wrong. Tartt, right. But I think Tartt really was the one who created this really racist, sexist view of Ole Miss from the comments that he made and the photos that he took that later become became distributed via Facebook.  Black women who he described as prostitutes and had said they were ruining the culture of Ole Miss. I don’t know what that was all about, who this guy is, why he said the thing he did, but they were sexist and they were racist and it was terrible. And I think, I think honestly, Norton was trying to raise as much money as he could for the journalism department.

And some of the emails that I read between the two of them, I think he was just trying to back him off. And unfortunately Norton was criticized, but I think when I even look at the history of work and his contributions to journalism at Ole Miss and in Mississippi were very, very valuable and I just have such high regard for him.

So I just wanted to take that aside there real quickly. But it was from that time when I was at Ole miss that put me at the Jackson Daily News. I did an internship in the summer and then got a job there when I graduated. And that’s when I started covering politics and that’s how I met Robert Clark was I covered that first race in 1982. And then he wanted me to work with him as his press secretary in 1984 when he ran a second time. And you know, he and Mike Espy are two different people. They’re very different in so many ways, though, equally, very powerful politicians. Clark was a country boy. You know, he was a farmer and he was just a country boy, you know, a country man. And he had been in the state legislature for all this time even working at the only black state legislature for a long time and facing a lot of race racism before he ran for office, for Congress. And I think made a very powerful persuasion, but this was the first time that someone, a black person had run for Congress since reconstruction.

So he was really building that road to take to Congress. And I think it just took two elections to figure out what to do and how to do it to elect a black person. And certainly the federal courts had a lot to do with it with redrawing the line so you had more black people in one district, otherwise it would have not happened and wouldn’t happen today if the lines hadn’t been drawn again. 

And then Mike Espy ran. Mike was very different. He wasn’t country. He knew the King’s English, right? He was dressed to the T. He’d been a lawyer and is a  lawyer today and assistant attorney general when he ran. And he was able to pull it off.

I think he won with only 2% of the vote. So, you know, Clark got closer and closer and then Espy took it. And both of them had very important things to bring to the House for Mississippi.  Mike obviously took the day and went on to, some of the things that I remember Mike for is catfish,  right? Catfish took over because of Mike, and I remember Mike wanting me to promote National Catfish Day because it had passed a resolution in Congress. I said, “Mike, nobody is going to care about National Catfish Day.”

There is a national day for everything, right? He said, “No, no. We gotta promote it. We gotta promote it.” So I tried my best. It didn’t get that much coverage except in local, Mississippi newspapers where everybody loves catfish already. But it took off. And pretty soon, the cafeteria in Washington for House members was selling catfish, and then the Defense Department started eating catfish. And anyway, it’s one thing after another and it took off. And now Mississippi has  the largest developer of catfish in the country and created so many jobs for the second congressional district as well. So those day of working for Mike were some of the most memorable political days of my life. I met so many terrific people, especially women who were really trying to make their way on Capitol Hill, and that was a tough place and remains a tough place for women though it’s improving immensely. You see many more women who are chiefs of staff, who are legislative directors and who are members of Congress. And there weren’t that many when I first started working there. So those are, those are great days to remember and my emotional strength toward both Mr. Clark, as well as Mike Espy is very strong and endearing part of my life. 

Bobby Harrison: [00:25:13] Yeah. They’re both historical figures in Mississippi history. As you said, Clark was the first African-American elected to legislature since reconstruction and Espy was the first black elected to Congress from Mississippi since reconstruction. And you had the opportunity to work for both of them, so that’s significant. 

Karen Hinton: [00:25:31] Yes. And I was lucky because I was a journalist first. 

Geoff Pender: [00:25:37] Ms. Hinton,  do I understand correctly there you may have a book in the works at this point? 

Karen Hinton: [00:25:41] Yes, I do.  I started working on the book. Well, let me put it this way. I started writing after my accident because I had a really tough time for a long time learning how to speak clearly again and write and read.  I have now become an audible reader because my attention span will only last for about 15, 20 minutes when I read something visually. So many now of the books I consume are through my ears, not my eyes. But you know, one of the things I started doing though, was trying to get my writing skills back.

So I started writing about my life and I, as a result, started remembering things too, which was part of my struggle as well. And I found some West Jones school yearbooks. And I found some old diaries, and I found some memory albums, you know, where you put photos and write things.

And anyway, so it brought back all these memories of things in my past. And I started writing about them. I either read the diaries to my husband or I wrote about them and read them to him, and he thought they were hilarious. And he said, “Why don’t you write a book?” I said, “Oh, I can’t do that.”

And so I did, but I kept practicing and practicing. And I finally got to a place where the theme that kept reappearing was the struggle that young girls, as well as young women and then older women have with men and boys, both at school, college, the workplace, at home, and how we have to see the other sex as a way to bring our differences and our strengths together.

So that it works for everyone involved in our lives, our families, our friends. And that’s what got me thinking more about the dynamic between men and women in the workplace. So this book addresses many of those issues and it includes time at West Jones, time at Ole Miss and also time in Washington and New York.

And Andrew Cuomo is a chapter or too, but there are other people in other places are as well. 

Bobby Harrison: [00:28:29] Karen, we appreciate you doing this. It’s been fun and just kind of, as they say in the legislature, just as a point of personal privilege, when we said that you and I went to high school together, I think it should just be pointed out you were a star basketball player.  I don’t know if you were Miss West Jones, but you were right up there. And I was just kind of this nerdy kid. I say kind of, because  I was the skinny kid, but I wasn’t smart like a nerd. It was kinda like being slow but small.

Karen Hinton: [00:28:57] I definitely wasn’t smart, but I love basketball. And I tell you, sports has a lot to do with helping a woman become a stronger person. And I know it helped me. And you may remember Title IX. When Title IX put women sports at the same financial level as men’s sports , it had a lot to do with helping women in their careers.

I mean, you know,I didn’t go on to become a professional basketball player. And I didn’t even last that long when I played at Ole Miss, but I love the game. So I, I don’t know that I was that great at it, but I loved it. So there you have it. 

Bobby Harrison: [00:29:42] Yeah. Well, at a risk of keeping you on too long I know you’re busy.

I think when you were at West Jones, I mean, it was still, there was two on the defensive and two in the backend on the offensive end to that were rovers. Is that right? 

Karen Hinton: [00:29:56] Right, up until our junior, senior year it changed. But yeah, for a long time I played when I was a freshmen, I played defense. And  I think sophomore is when we switched, but I remember playing either rover or defense or forward. They switch you up all the time.

But yeah, it was six, it was six member team, but the boys played by us and then suddenly, suddenly we got switched to five as well. 

Bobby Harrison: [00:30:26] Well, we appreciate your time and good luck with your book. 

Karen Hinton: [00:30:29] Thank you. Nice to meet you, Geoff, and good luck with Mississippi Today.

Adam Ganucheau: [00:30:36] As we cover the biggest political stories in this state you don’t want to miss an episode of The Other Side. We’ll bring you more reporting from every corner of the state, sharing the voices of Mississippians and how they’re impacted by the news. So, what do we need from you, the listener? We need your feedback and support.

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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.

Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.