/Mike Espy, 32 years after historic victory and fall, hopes to rise to moment again

Mike Espy, 32 years after historic victory and fall, hopes to rise to moment again

He could have fallen spectacularly at the Neshoba fair, which is a safe haven not for Democrats like Espy but Republicans. The first African American from Mississippi to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives since 1800s, Mike Espy, spoke in a raspy voice that sometimes seemed a bit hoarse. Because I believe it is time for me to stand above all this division, disunity, and chaos and lead the nation, I am running to the U.S. Senate. There are so many things that unite us, rather than divide us. “… I will do my best not to be obstructive to anyone and make independent judgments. No one can tell or dictate what I should do.” Mike Espy has always been a man who is willing to reach high and not be afraid to take on the big moments. In 1986, a 32-year old Yazoo City attorney won election to Congress from the Delta District. This was where Robert Clark, a political icon and the first black person elected as a member of the Legislature since 1880s, had failed. Espy won the election, making him national news. Six years later, Espy made another bold move. He created a list to explain why he should become his secretary of agriculture. He handed the list to Clinton at a banquet. Espy watched the president-elect reading the note at the banquet. He gave a thumbs-up and indicated that he would at most consider the suggestion. Months later, Clinton tapped Espy for the job. The still-young Yazoo City lawyer famously promised during his Senate confirmation process that he would “be the best secretary of agricultural that this country has ever had.” Two years later, Espy resigned in disgrace after he was indicted on charges that he accepted gifts from companies that were regulated under his agency. In 1998, Espy was acquitted and returned to Mississippi, hinting at a second run for political office. He never ran again until Thad Cochran, the long-serving U.S. Senator, announced that he would be resigning for health reasons in March. Espy was the first to declare his intention to run for the special election. This, once again, acknowledged the moment and ensured that he would be a notable Democrat running in the jungle primary, where all candidates are on the same ballot, without any party labels. Espy stated recently that he is running for the same reasons as he did in 1986: “We have to do better for our community.” He said that the state needed leadership to bridge the gap and find solutions, regardless of whether it was health care or jobs. He also lauds his 1987 bill that declared a national catfish holiday, which allowed the Mississippi product to be served at all U.S. military bases around the globe. He claimed that he was conservative in fiscal policy as he reduced the size of a once-bloated workforce by 7,000. Because Espy accepted gifts from entities that were regulated by his agency, the state Republican Party labelled him “too corrupt to be indicted”. A 12 member jury found Espy not guilty. This is not the Republican mantra. Republicans claim that he is too liberal for Mississippi, describing him as pro-abortion, pro-taxes and pro-big government. Espy was considered a moderate during his time in Congress. He was one of few African American congressmen who worked with Clinton in the 1990s to establish what was then called the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Espy was also a member the National Rifle Association, which, he stated, he had to join in order to be able use a rifle range while at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Espy now says that he supports the 2nd Amendment but believes in sensible gun reforms such as enhanced background check. He voted for the 1990 compromise, which was supported by George H.W. Bush to increase taxes, primarily on high-wage earners, in order to reduce the deficit. While Espy attempts to portray himself as moderate on the campaign trail, he embraces many Democratic positions. These include working to expand Medicaid and ensure that people with pre-existing conditions have access to insurance. This is directly in conflict with the Trump administration’s efforts to make it more affordable. Espy stated that he supports equality regardless of race, gender, or sexuality. Espy stated that he is a Democrat to a group of predominantly progressive voters in west Jackson. “But I am a Mississippian First,” Espy said to a crowd of mostly progressive voters in west Jackson. He would listen to any idea from a Republican or Democrat that he believed will benefit his home state. Although the Espy campaign promotes a moderate message to attract the 25 percent of white voters that he needs to prevail, he is aware that he will also need a record (for a midterm election) turnout from African American voters to win. He spent days in Mississippi Delta recently, where he was endorsed and praised by the Congressional Black Caucus. U.S. Rep. Terri Swell, D. Alabama, played a crucial role in the win of Democrat Doug Jones in a U.S. Senate Special Election in her home state earlier in this year. She told a Greenville crowd that Espy could do the same. She also said that Espy is the most qualified candidate in the race. She said, “The dysfunctional Washington is unacceptable.” “We need to send people to Washington who are open to compromise. We must send people to Washington that understand that you can’t get everything you want… We need people like Mike.” Sewell presented Espy with a $5,000 check from her campaign before she left. Espy informed the crowd that he has raised over $2 million. Espy will appear on TV and radio with advertisements the last days of the campaign. However, he will save money for the get out-the-vote effort. Espy has learned from his congressional campaigns that transportation issues are crucially important to poor and underserved communities. Espy, who was a young attorney in his former district, is not the same person that won national attention with his 1986 victory. Espy is 64 years old and has two adult children and one high school student. He still has a youthful look despite his gray hair. He pulls out his phone and shows a few media members a video of himself working out at his son’s gym (former Ole Miss player Mike Espy Jr.), along with a host of professional athletes including Fletcher Cox, a former Mississippi State star, also from Yazoo City. He stated that the video was not intended to promote a healthy lifestyle but that he did more than just do pull-ups. On social media, he wrote: “We hope to inspire Mississippians all ages to get up off the couch and ditch the junk food.” I did my best to work out with these athletes, and I am proud to have their endorsement. The video can be seen as a reminder of how many of the young voters he wants to attract weren’t born in 1986 when he became a Congressman and later became – according to research by Mississippi Today- one of four cabinet secretaries from Mississippi. Espy was born in Yazoo City, near the place where motorists on U.S. Highway 49 see the transformation from central Mississippi hills into Delta flatland. If Mike Espy is not around, many people in the area know the Espy/Huddleston family. Leroy Bonner (69) said that Espy-Huddleston will win a lot of votes. Bonner, now retired from Mississippi Chemical, said that he has fond memories of Espy as a young lawyer who stopped by to chat with men at nearby gas stations to socialize. His grandfather might have given Espy the confidence to get involved in politics despite all odds. T.J Huddleston was Espy’s grandfather and he traveled across the state telling people that he was tired of women having their babies in cotton fields. He wanted to build a hospital. In earlier interviews, Espy stated that he would build a hospital if you gave him a dollar for each brick. The Afro American Sons and Daughters Hospital, Yazoo City, was established in 1928 and closed in 2002. Espy was born there with his twin sister. Huddleston also established a series of funeral homes, which were later managed by Espy’s dad and his siblings. Although Mike Espy was financially more secure than most African Americans in Mississippi, the young Mike Espy still recognized the racial divide at the time. His sister and he attended an African American parochial school, which closed their second year. Before integration, the twins were enrolled at an all-white school. He said that he suffered many indignities at school, including scuffles with students of color, when teachers would leave the classroom for extended periods of time to encourage such action. Espy also described being covered in white foam by a fire extinguisher. In his 1980s congressional bio, Espy said, “Relatively to the civil rights experience, snarling dogs, whips, and things, it was pretty mild.” Espy’s senior year saw integration of schools. He quickly rose to prominence among African American students, leading protests for equal treatment and serving the presidency of black students. Recently, he proudly stated that Mike Espy Drive now passes in front of the high school. Espy, now a Madison County resident, said that he has fond memories of Yazoo City. Espy said, “It’s where I learned the value of hard work, and service from my grandfather and father.” Espy was eventually appointed to the staff of Ed Pittman, the then-Secretary State of State, and later as deputy attorney general. He began to get more involved in politics during his time in state government. In 1986, Clark announced that he would not run again for the congressional seat. His long and distinguished career in politics, from being the first African American elected to Congress from Mississippi to becoming the first African American Agriculture Secretary came to an abrupt halt in the middle of an investigation. He was later indicted on 39 charges. The special counsel stated in a report that “this investigation showed how our leaders could be compromised in the decision-making duties and how others used illegal means to influence public policies. Espy received a lot of gifts from people and entities whose conduct Espy was supposed to oversee impartially. This provided Espy with substantial personal benefit. In return, the donors had access to Espy. The influence they exerted over his decisions cannot be measured. The federal decision-making process’ integrity, safety and impartiality, as well as the American people’s faith in government, were all affected.” Multiple guilty pleas were entered and fines were imposed against those who provided the gifts. Espy was cleared of all charges. The jury said there was no evidence that Espy received any favors in exchange for the gifts. Espy was asked if Espy made poor judgment when accepting the gifts. Bottom line: I trusted my friends and that trust was misplaced. Espy went back to law practice in the state, but he decided to grab what he believes to be his chance. Mississippi Today has the complete coverage of the historic runoff election, Cindy Hyde Smith and Mike Espy.