Congressman Espy from Mississippi
By Bill Minor
Vol. 8, No. 6, 1986, pp. 1-3
A studious, mild-mannered Yazoo City attorney, thirty-two years old, wrote Mississippi political history on November 4, when he became the first black sent to the U.S. Congress from this state since 1883.
Mike Espy, a former assistant state attorney general, was a political unknown when he entered the Mississippi Second District race against Rep. Webb Franklin of Greenwood, a conservative white Republican and staunch supporter of President Reagan.
The last black Mississippian to sit in the U.S. House was John R. Lynch, a Reconstruction-era Republican. Espy is one of the young breed of black Democrats who have risen in the South in the post-Civil Rights era.
The Second District, covering the rich Mississippi River Delta, was created by the federal courts as a black-majority district with fifty-three percent black voting-age population. But the black voter edge was based on 1980 census statistics, and current estimates place the ratio of white to black eligible voters almost even. Twice-in 1982 and 1984-Robert Clark, a veteran black state legislator from Ebenezer, challenged for the Second District seat, each time losing to Franklin by one per cent of the vote. In both races, Clark got the white votes thought necessary to win (about twelve percent of all white Democratic ballots), but his black support fell short.
Espy’s victory–by a margin of 4,850 votes (2.3 percent of the total)–was primarily credited to his highly organized campaign that got out the black vote in impressive numbers, but there were several other important contributing factors, not least among them the disastrous farm economy in the Delta which many
white farmers blamed on Reagan farm policies.
Several thousand white farmers who formerly supported Franklin are believed to have “voted with their rumps” by staying home on election day. However, many other white farmers deliberately went to the polls and did something they never dreamed of doing before–they voted for a black to represent them in Washington.
Espy had won endorsements from influential white Democratic politicians, among them the sheriffs of Warren (Vicksburg) and Grenada counties. Generally, more white politicos in the district publicly identified with Espy’s campaign than they had with Clark’s. Two highly regarded young white Democratic state elected officials, State Auditor Ray Mabus and Secretary of State Dick Molpus, campaigned in the district with Espy.
Espy’s $50,000 campaign deficit–small by comparison with most major Democratic bids for Congress in recent years–was quickly erased three weeks after the election at a thousand-dollar-a-plate dinner sponsored by Gov. Bill Allain and Mississippi Democratic Chairman Steve Patterson. Some of Jackson’s biggest bankers and businessmen came out to meet with Espy.
When Clark twice failed to whip Franklin, the political wisdom indicated that blacks would have to wait until after the next census and another court-ordered redistricting to win the Second.
Consequently, no “name” black politician would take on Franklin in 1986. Without fanfare, and without seeking the blessing of the black political elders, Espy quietly gave up his job in the state attorney -general’s office and began to organize his campaign in November 1985. At first, many veteran black politicians resisted Espy. They felt he had not worked in the vineyard during harder times. Others were wary because he comes from a somewhat privileged background in the black community. (His family for years has owned a chain of funeral homes and burial insurance companies across the Delta.)
Eventually, most of the black political veterans warmed up to Espy’s sincere, hard-working style and helped pull him through the Democratic primary last June over two well-financed white moderates who aggressively sought black votes. Some, like Mayor Charles Evers of Fayette, never came around. Evers supported Franklin, saying “I stick with the ones in power, cause they can help me.”
From the start, many political observers underestimated Espy’s political ability because of his shy, reticient personality. Franklin discounted the latest black threat after a July poll showed him twenty points ahead of Espy. After that, Franklin took no more polls. For that matter, neither did Espy, who conserved his money for his last three-week media campaign, and to put gas in cars to get voters to the polls.
Espy deliberately ran a low-profile campaign through September and early October, partly to keep down racial polarization and also to keep his opponent guessing. Then in the stretch, he went head-to-head with Franklin on farm policy, Social Security, drugs and any other issue he could tie to Franklin’s voting record. He held his own with Franklin in a televised debate less than a week before the election (by comparison, Clark, a less-polished speaker, might have been outmatched).
Hand-picked by no organization, Espy maintained independence in running his campaign, in contrast with the 1984 Clark campaign which was virtually taken over by the AFL-CIO. Nor did Espy allow the Rev. Jesse Jackson to visit during the general election campaign, a move that some observers believe could have resulted in last-minute white backlash.
In October, Espy had been taken to a National Democratic Party Gala in Washington as a guest of white Clarksdale attorney Walter Thompson, a member of the Democratic National Finance Council. Espy was seated at a table with Joseph P. Kennedy III, the Congressional successor to Tip O’Neill. Espy and Kennedy apparently became instant friends.
The bright young Espy shies away from historic comparisons as the first black Mississippi Congressman in a hundred and three years, or as a new hero of his race. He has often said, “I just want to be known as Mike Espy,
Whether Espy can be Mississippian and Congressman after the 1988 elections is the unanswered question from his victory in 1986. In the election aftermath, observers debated the size of Espy’s white vote district-wide. Exact figures are unavailable because racial breakdowns at the precinct level are unreliable in Mississippi’s electron system. Espy’s own campaign people and State Democratic Party officials believe his white vote exceeded the twelve percent Clark is believed to have had in the benchmark 1982 race. A spot-check of a ninety percent white precinct in Warren County, for instance, indicated Espy got twenty-four percent of the white vote.
But white civil rights activist Rims Barber of Jackson disagreed. Using selected precincts, Barber’s analysis indicates that Espy may have gotten a smaller percentage of white votes than Clark.
Because of the importance of understanding the racial voting patterns, the Joint Center for Political Studies, a black-run research institution in Washington, is reported to be planning a comprehensive study of the vote in each of the district’s three hundred and eighty-two precincts.
Such analysis is especially significant in the ongoing debate over what percentage of black eligible voters a district must have to be a “safe” black seat. Espy’s electoral margin over Franklin was whisker-thin, and appears to have been at least partly due to white voters staying home.
Whatever the percentage of white crossover votes, the turnout numbers of 1984 strongly suggest that Espy may have to get twenty thousand more votes, black and/or white, if he is to prevail in a re-election bid during a presidential election year.
Bill Minor, a veteran observer of Mississippi politics, lives in Jackson.