Thompson, Espy: Different approaches to public office
Bennie Thompson and Mike Espy are African-American men. That’s what they have in common. Other than both being members of the Democratic Party, that’s about all they have in common.
Thompson has represented Mississippi’s 2nd Congressional District since 1993 when Espy, his predecessor, was selected to be Secretary of Agriculture by incoming President Bill Clinton. Last week, Thompson called on his fellow Democrats at the national level to lubricate Espy’s bid to succeed U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran.
Espy could use some cash, no doubt, as he campaigns in advance of the Nov. 6 special election. The two are not likely to campaign together, though. Thompson trash-talks and scares white people, and that’s not a tactic Espy has ever used.
In the aftermath of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the 2nd District was purposely drawn with a black voting age majority. Initially, it didn’t work out as expected. Despite the advantage in racial numbers, the venerable Robert Clark, an African-American institution in the state House, failed to oust the Republican incumbent, Webb Franklin.
Espy, 64, later became the first black person elected to Congress from Mississippi since the years just after the Civil War. In a Washington Post article about a month after his first win in 1986, one observer said a key factor was that Espy was “perfectly acceptable to a Greenville Kiwanis Club.”
Espy, from Yazoo City, grew up in a family that operated a funeral home dynasty, but he understood farming, worked well with mostly white Delta farmers and was rewarded with larger re-election margins. Specifically, 73,119 people voted for him in his first try for office and he polled 135,162 when he won his fourth.
His service on the House Agriculture Committee led Clinton tapping him to guide national farm policy, but disaster struck in the form of accusation that he had accepted favors (a trip and football tickets) from a company his agency regulated. Espy resigned, returned to Mississippi and has been in private law practice since.
Although prosecutors spent more than $20 million investigating, Espy was tried and found innocent of any crime. Antonin Scalia, the most conservative of Supreme Court justices, wrote that the relevant law was “so broad a high school principal could be in legal trouble for giving a souvenir baseball cap to a visiting Secretary of Education.”
Although he served as one of the highest-ranking federal officials in state history, Espy, after being found innocent, chose to stay away from politics for the most part. One striking exception came in 2007 when he openly endorsed Republican Gov. Haley Barbour for a second term.
As for Thompson, 70, he often fits the classic definition of race-baiter and is a strict party loyalist. Although he represents one of the poorest districts in the nation that has seen little if any gain on any front during his 24 years in Washington, the key to his success is stellar constituent service. Anyone in his district who has any issue with any agency can contact Thompson’s office and a letter of outrage and indignation will issue, demanding the agency step up and do the right thing.
In addition to becoming the senior member of Congress from Mississippi, Thompson, by some measures, has become the wealthiest. He routinely raises and spends more than $1 million in re-election funds, although he has rarely faced a serious challenge.
It is altogether right and proper that Espy should welcome Thompson’s endorsement and for Espy to expect a majority of black Mississippians to support him when he faces the two well-known white candidates, U.S. Sen Cindy Hyde-Smith and state Sen. Chris McDaniel in the nonpartisan special election.
But no one should harbor any notion that these two black men, Thompson and Espy, have anything more in common than any two random white men.
Thompson tosses grenades and walks away. Espy invites people to the table to share ideas. Thompson takes grains of truth and spins them into grievances. Espy takes what’s offered as truth, then seeks verification and solutions.
The biggest negative for Espy will be that he left the Clinton Administration under a cloud. Truth is, that members of Congress can accept all kinds of favors that Executive officials cannot. Espy learned the hard way, immediately admitted what he did — didn’t try to deny or hide anything. Social media being social media, there are already sporadic comments that he’s corrupt, took bribes and such. He’ll have to weather that, but he shouldn’t have to weather any comparison to Thompson. They are completely different people.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.