Mike Espy, the first African-American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Mississippi since Reconstruction, a former U.S. secretary of agriculture, and now a practicing attorney, is running for a U.S. Senate seat against two Republican candidates in a special election. To win outright, a candidate needs 51 percent of the total vote or else the top two vote-getters will compete again in a run-off. In a conversation with Trice Edney News Wire contributor Khalil Abdullah about his historic run, Espy reflects on his time at USDA and shares his vision of Mississippi’s future. In order to win, he says, he will need the state’s Black, White and ‘purple people’ – those who will not necessarily vote along party lines, but in sync with his plans for the disadvantaged.
KA: Does Freedom Summer, 1964, still resonate in Mississippi in your upcoming election?
Espy: Yes. In fact, this past July , I was in a mule train in Marks, Mississippi, and Robert Kennedy’s grandchildren were on the platform. It marked the 50th anniversary of Robert Kennedy Jr. coming to Marks, around the same period of the Freedom Summer. That period still resonates, not so much with millennials, but with older people.
We revere Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers and certainly acknowledge and respect everything they did. We have to make sure millennials understand who these individuals were and their contributions.
KA: Your take on the president’s posture on China and international trade as it affects African-American farmers?
Espy: I met with Black farmers in Leland, Mississippi, on this issue. I think the president’s tariff policy is short-sighted and misguided. When he imposed that 25 percent tariff on aluminum and steel, I believe he did it as a naked political outreach to voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania. He did it, maybe not knowing or caring, of the retaliatory impact on soybean farmers. China slapped similar tariffs on soybeans, our number three cash crop, threatening the number one market [China] for Mississippi soybeans.
All farmers benefit from open markets and free trade. We don’t need to limit our global markets. Our farmers are so good, our yields so great, that we have to find extended markets to sell to. You can’t do that by inviting retaliatory tariffs that close markets
KA: Talk election math for the Senate seat. Do you need 100 percent of the African-American vote to win? How much of the Anglo vote?
Espy: I tell it a little differently. We need African-Americans to turn out at 37 percent of the total electorate, which is just about the Black voting age population here, and was the turnout percentage for Obama. If we get 95 percent of these voters, we’re going to look pretty good. Then all we need is less than one in four White votes.
In Mississippi, 15 percent of White voters are Democrats, so we need seven percent more, purple people, I call them. These are women who don’t necessarily like the president’s rhetoric and the chaos he’s causing. These are people who care about the closing of rural hospitals and continuing the coverage of pre-existing medical conditions. They want their children to graduate in Mississippi and not have go to Detroit or Atlanta for work. They don’t want their kids to have student debt. They know I will help them because I’ve helped them as a congressman and secretary of agriculture.
We have enough purple people who will vote for me in order to win, if we get the Black vote out at strength.
KA: In Greenville years ago, elders were challenged by youth who asked, “Are you going to provide pathways for our job future and economic development other than casinos and prisons?”
ESPY: I hope to do that. I’ve heard the same thing about casinos and prisons — that we need better opportunities. Here’s what I tell them.
Number one, I want you to graduate. Don’t drop out. I’m going to do all I can to help you graduate without debt. We need to make technical schools, junior and community colleges free of charge, at least for the first two years. They’ve done it New York and in the Los Angeles area. I don’t see why we can’t do it in Mississippi.
For other schools, we can find ways to mitigate some of that student debt. That’s number two.
Number three, we want these students to stay here. That takes somebody who is pro-business and attracts companies where Millennials want to work. I brought Deval Patrick to Mississippi. Here’s a brother who was governor of Massachusetts twice in a state that has Fortune 500s and Fortune 50 companies. I wanted them to see that this has been done before.
Massachusetts is not Mississippi. I know that. But there ought to be some collaboration and appreciation for best practices we can employ in Mississippi to bring jobs here, as long as we have the educated workforce. Of those reasons, none include prisons or casinos.
KA: Your take on technology, the demands for a changing labor force, and agriculture?
Espy: Those 30 Black farmers were already “there.” Some owned 6,000 acres, some owned two or three farms. They were telling me, they may be third generation farmers, but they’re often first generation to have graduated college. They spoke about new technologies they have employed that make farming easier. One said, when I was with my dad, I had to get in this tractor in the hot sun, but now, I get into a combine that’s air conditioned, and with hip-hop music. I plug in the coordinates, push a button, and that tractor drives itself. It picks the cotton, de-seeds the cotton, bales the cotton, all in one action. I can go from sunup until sundown, give it to my brother at nighttime because it’s using global positioning. We don’t need any sunlight to operate. All I have to do is afford it. It costs $250,000, and a lot of banks won’t lend because we don’t have the credit a lot of other farmers have established[K1] over generations.
We agreed we would focus on something called Catch-up, meaning for all the cost-share USDA imposes, they would get some benefit more than others, for a certain farm size, and if you were minority or disadvantaged. Agriculture has a great future, with technologies a lot of students don’t know about.
KA: Of the Department of Agriculture, it was said racism was so entrenched, it wouldn’t have mattered — you or any African-American who brought a sensibility for fairness and equity would have been fighting uphill.
Espy: They called it the last plantation. I guess that was a plantation master’s view, but I felt that. When I came in, I tried to change the culture to make it more consumer and patron friendly. I reduced the size of it, but also reinforced a different mission. I elevated the food and nutrition mission, the conservation mission, and what they used to call food stamps I made friendlier for consumers.
More than anything, I elevated the rural development mission, to make sure every town in America with fewer than 50,000 people had access to water and sewer, and telephone and broadband, and everything the USDA offers them. I reformed the farmers’ side to make sure there was diversity and class satisfaction, regardless of race, and also highlighted things like rural development.
KA: Is it a valid criticism that you weren’t aggressive enough in uprooting that culture of racism?
Espy: Before I got to USDA, there were no Black farmers on any local county committee anywhere in America. There’s something like 4,200 counties in America and each county had a USDA presence. There were no Black farmers on these committees because members were elected by their peers. Those White farmers had never elected a Black guy nowhere in America prior to 1993. Nowhere.
Knowing that — because I had studied it as a member of Congress — I tried to eke reform into existence, but it didn’t work. The committee formula is created by the Farm Bill, a legislative device. Congress voted down the law I proposed, that there be an African-American farm representative that could vote in each of those counties where the African-American farm population constituted more than 20 percent.
I said, OK, let the secretary of agriculture choose a Black farmer to monitor these committees, because that’s where the farmers receive the loan approval, at these county committees. Congress voted that down.
Meanwhile, I found out there were no USDA civil rights agencies in existence because President Ronald Reagan had terminated them all. I made sure President Clinton understood that those civil rights offices should be reauthorized and he did that. That’s how the Pigford settlement for Black farmers came into being.
I created diversity panels at all of the agencies under USDA, whether they were forestry or nutrition, for example, to make sure those panels had people on them that looked like the consumers they served. So, I don’t know what those critics are talking about. That’s one of the reasons antagonists wanted me to leave, because I was reforming and doing too much.
KA: In the mid-1990s, a German associate said, “Our labor costs are too high and U.S. import tariffs make our vehicles less competitive. We’re going to make America our Third World. You have cheap land in the South and no labor unions.”
In years since, BMW, Nissan, Toyota have built plants in the South. Nissan just celebrated 15 years for one of its Mississippi plants. Your response to this foreign presence? And is there a labor movement emerging in Mississippi?
Espy: I certainly invite the next generation of global auto manufacturers to consider locating in Mississippi. Those are jobs we need; jobs for people we need trained. We need more of them — BMW plants and all that. We have a Mercedes plants right here in Mississippi. Those are jobs for our people and that’s what I would promote as senator.
Where labor is concerned, I’m pro-business and also pro-labor. I don’t think there’s a contradiction. I’ve come out for a $15 minimum wage; that just ought to be the bottom line. I’m for collective bargaining. Workers ought to have the right to decide for themselves whether that plant should be unionized. So, I’m certainly for collective bargaining and against arbitration. Some plants in Mississippi are union and some aren’t. As long as the vote is taken, and if it’s an honest and fair vote — without manipulation by the companies — I’m willing to live with the results.
These plants are hi-tech, bringing opportunities for employees to be trained in jobs of the future. I’m all for them coming, as long as labor has an opportunity to organize without frustration or penalty.
KA: For those outside of Mississippi, what do you want them to know about your candidacy and state?
Espy: That we have more Black voters in Mississippi than anywhere else in the nation. We’re approaching a 40 percent African-American population and 35 percent of them are voters. I want the Black community outside of Mississippi to understand the dynamics in play here. If Black voters turn out, at strength, then all we need are White Democrats and purple people, who believe in the same thing as I do, that we need to lift the state by lifting those who are the most disadvantaged.
For those who want a slice of the American dream, irrespective of race, we want to make sure that opportunity exists. As senator, I’ll provide that for them. If you focus on that American dream for those in that socioeconomic class I’m targeting, that’s going to lift most African-Americans in Mississippi. That’s why everyone needs to focus on this race; make sure that we’re serious; make sure we can win. I’m going to lift everybody and I’m going to lift the Black community.
KA: If elected to the U.S. Senate, would you consider a 2020 run for president?
ESPY: No, and I promise you that. We’re focused on Mississippi.