Thursday, November 15, 2018

Runoff between two flawed candidates to cap midterms -- Nov. 15, 2018 column


If you thought the midterm elections were over except for those messy recounts in Florida, think again. A special election for Senate in Mississippi goes to a runoff Nov. 27.  

Until this week, few people outside Mississippi paid much attention, because history points to the Republican’s sailing to victory. No Democrat has occupied either Senate seat in Mississippi in 30 years.

But Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s loose lips may sink her ship.

A video posted on social media Sunday showed her making a racially insensitive remark Nov. 2. Standing with a local rancher at a gathering in Tupelo, Hyde-Smith joked: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be in the front row.”

The comment and her ham-handed handling of the uproar that followed have breathed life into the campaign of her opponent Democrat Mike Espy, who has rebounded from a political corruption scandal in the 1990s.

How Mississippi votes won’t alter Republican control of the Senate, but the state will make history, regardless of its choice.

Hyde-Smith, a former state agriculture commissioner and state senator, was appointed by the governor in April to fill the seat of Sen. Thad Cochran who retired because of poor health. She could become the first woman elected to the Senate from Mississippi.

Or Espy, who was the state’s first black congressman since Reconstruction, serving  six years in the House before becoming President Bill Clinton’s agriculture secretary, could become the first black senator from the state since the Reconstruction era. 

Hyde-Smith hasn’t apologized for her remark. To the contrary, she issued a statement saying she had “used an exaggerated expression of regard, and an attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous.”

Espy’s spokesman called Hyde-Smith’s comments “reprehensible.”

The controversy likely will motivate black voters, who make up nearly 40 percent of the vote.

“For many in Mississippi and beyond, the mention of public hangings stirs memories of Mississippi’s history of racist violence,” Mississippi Today reported.

The state carried out public hangings until 1940 as an official method of capital punishment, and also has a history of allowing white mobs to commit lynchings, the news outlet reported.

Mississippi had 654 reported lynchings between 1877 and 1950, more than any other state, according to a study by the Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Ala.    

The primary ballot Nov. 6 listed four candidates without party affiliations. President Donald Trump campaigned for Hyde-Smith, but she and Espy each won 41 percent of the vote. A runoff is required if no candidate reaches 50 percent.

Trump reportedly is now weighing whether to return to Mississippi on her behalf.

Espy’s rise shows there can be second acts in politics. When he stepped down as agriculture secretary in 1994, The New York Times opined that “Mr. Espy’s behavior gave, at the very least, the appearance of conflict of interest. It was also colossally stupid.”

He had allegedly accepted gifts, including Super Bowl tickets and free trips, from lobbyists and companies he regulated.

When Espy was indicted by an independent counsel three years later, The Times wrote:  “It is sad to see a young politician’s promising career go down the drain in a personal corruption scandal.”

Espy stood trial for seven months, charged with illegally soliciting and accepting gifts worth $35,000. Prosecutors showed he received the gifts but could not prove he did any official acts in return. He was acquitted of all 30 counts of corruption in 1998.

“I knew from Day One that I would stand before you completely exonerated,” Espy told reporters at the time.

He has practiced law in Jackson but this is his first campaign since the trial.

“I had to rebuild a life,” he told the Jackson Free Press.

“Mississippians are a forgiving lot,” Mac Gordon, a former Mississippi newsman wrote in the Jackson Clarion Ledger in August, long before Hyde-Smith’s “hanging” comments. Gordon was referring to his belief Espy should and would win.

Forgiveness is a word we rarely associate with politics.

But in a year of election surprises, the winner of Mississippi’s Senate runoff may be the candidate voters are most willing to forgive.    

© 2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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