While the Democratic Party has largely written off Mississippi for years, recent polling is giving Espy hope he can pull off one of the biggest political upsets in decades.
While much of the focus on November 3 will be on the presidential race, Election Day has the possibility of dramatically changing the balance of power in the United States Senate by giving Democrats control. One candidate hoping to help flip the Senate is Mississippi Democrat Mike Espy, who is challenging Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith for the second time in as many years.
Espy and Hyde-Smith faced off in a 2018 special election to replace the retiring Senator Thad Cochran, who had held the seat since 1978. With 46.4% of the vote, Espy had the best showing for a Democratic Senate candidate in Mississippi since 1982.
This year, Espy, a former member of President Bill Clinton’s administration, is hoping a strong fundraising haul could help him do what no Democrat has done in two generations. While the Democratic Party has largely written off Mississippi for years, recent polling is giving Espy hope he can pull off one of the biggest political upsets in decades.
The origins of Mike Espy
Alphonso Michael Espy was born in Yazoo City, part of the famous Mississippi Delta, in 1953. His parents were Henry and Willie Jean Espy. He was born into what a 1992 New York Times profile called “a prominent Black family.” Or as a 1986 Washington Post profile deemed it, “The Huddleston Dynasty.”
Espy’s grandfather, T.J. Huddleston Sr., was a prominent Black entrepreneur in the early 1900s. He traveled Mississippi, giving speeches and collecting donations to build the first Black hospital in the state, the Afro-American Sons and Daughters Hospital, in Yazoo City. Huddleston also opened 28 funeral homes. At that time, white parlors didn’t bury the Black deceased.
Espy, who is one of seven children, including a twin sister, finished high school and attended the Washington, DC-based Howard University, a historically Black university (HBCU). After he earned his undergraduate degree, he attended the University of Santa Clara Law School in California, where he earned his law degree in 1978.
After completing his juris doctor, Espy returned to Mississippi to practice law. Shortly thereafter, he became the first Black assistant secretary of state in state history and then the first Black assistant attorney general for the state.
Espy wasn’t done making history though. In 1986, Espy became the first Black congressman from Mississippi since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. Espy served in the House of Representatives for three full terms before stepping down in 1993 to serve as the Secretary of Agriculture under President Bill Clinton.
Espy has been married to Portia Ballard since 1999. They have three children together and live in Jackson, Mississippi.
A member of the Clinton administration
As is a theme with Espy, he was the first Black person to serve as the US Secretary of Agriculture. It was a short-lived accomplishment. In December 1994, Espy was forced to step down from the position amid scandal.
Espy was indicted by an independent counsel on charges that he illegally accepted US$35,000 in gifts, including tickets to sporting events. Donald Smaltz, one of seven independent counsels appointed to investigate the Clinton administration, believed the gifts were bribery. A jury disagreed and acquitted Espy, citing no evidence that there was a quid pro quo for the gifts.
Following the acquittal, which came in 1998 following a multiyear investigation and trial, Espy did not return to the Clinton administration. Instead, he resettled in Mississippi and returned to practicing law.
Mike Espy for Senate
In 2018, Senator Cochran retired from the Senate after having represented Mississippi as both a senator and House representative since 1973. The state held a special election to replace him.
In that election, Espy received endorsements from some of the biggest names in the Democratic Party, including former President Barack Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden’s running mate in this election, Senator Kamala Harris, also endorsed Espy. The endorsements weren’t enough to push Espy past Hyde-Smith, who received a Twitter endorsement from President Donald Trump.
Immediately following the narrow defeat, Espy said he committed himself to running again in 2020. His opponent, Senator Hyde-Smith, the first woman from Mississippi to serve in Congress, is generally expected to win the election. Mississippi hasn’t had a Democratic senator since 1989 and a Republican has held Hyde-Smith’s seat since 1978, the year Cochran first won the seat.
Despite the long odds, some polling suggests Espy is running neck-and-neck with Hyde-Smith, partly due to a substantial fundraising advantage. A recent poll from the Tyson Group shows Espy only one point behind Hyde-Smith, a 25-point gain since March. However, the Cook Political Report, which closely tracks Congressional races, still highly favors Hyde-Smith.
Mike Espy on the issues
On his campaign website, Espy says expanding Medicaid is his “number one priority” The site states: “The revenue from Medicaid expansion is needed now more than ever to undergird our rural hospitals, to fill the gap for uncompensated care, to address the long-term care crisis, and to be able to enroll an additional 210,000 uninsured Mississippians.”
Initially, 25 states, including Mississippi, rejected the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare). The expansion allowed all individuals with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level to receive Medicaid funding. Now, even as some states have made an about-face on Medicaid expansion, Mississippi has continued to reject it.
Other issues addressed on Espy’s campaign site include education and the economy in Mississippi, as well as supporting farmers in the state.
“Every child in Mississippi,” the site states, “deserves access to a quality education that will allow them to reach their full potential – no matter the school they attend, the color of their skin, or how much money their parents make.”
Espy also provides a list of “priorities” for addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. Espy says he would increase testing, develop “a robust contract tracing program,” ensure the workplaces of essential workers “have health and safety protections in place,” “support innovative credit and grant opportunities for our small business owners,” update Mississippi’s unemployment system and provide more resources to community leaders.
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