The midterms are not over. They’re still counting votes in Florida, Georgia, and Arizona. In Mississippi, which will always be my home state regardless of where I live and vote, Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democrat Mike Espy are in a runoff to fill Thad Cochran’s vacated Senate seat. Hyde-Smith is an in-the-tank Trumper who recently said she’d be in the front row if a local cattle rancher invited her to a public hanging. It’s an ugly thing to say no matter the context, but in Mississippi it is a particularly nasty declaration.
It is made even nastier by the fact that Hyde-Smith’s opponent is a black man. She says she was simply putting forth an “exaggerated expression of regard” for a constituent, but you cannot blithely joke about hanging people in a state with a history of racist lynchings and pretend to be ignorant of the power of your words. If Hyde-Smith truly is ignorant of the larger implications of her statement, she is unfit to serve in any office. She clearly lacks good judgment. She is also the least qualified candidate.
Mike Espy is highly qualified. He represented Mississippi as a member of the House of Representatives in the 1980s and 90s. He led the Department of Agriculture under President Clinton, where opponents tried to bring him down with bogus accusations of corruption. He was cleared on all counts and his ethics were found beyond reproach. So he knows a little something about fighting back when politics get dirty. He is a moderate who has worked across the aisle with Republicans to bring aid to the poorest state in America. He joined forces with Republican Gov. Haley Barbour in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Espy has a reputation for being humble, hard working, and dedicated to improving the state. In other words, he’s a Democrat who has a shot at winning in deep red Mississippi.
And he ought to win. His opponent’s only experience is a few years serving as a state agriculture commissioner. She flipped party affiliation to take the seat vacated by Sen. Cochran, so she isn’t even a dedicated Republican. Maybe she stands for something, but I don’t know what. Her only real passion seems to be to ride the racist coattails of the current administration into power. Her experience is slim, her convictions are shallow, and her rhetoric is terrible.
Nonetheless, she is favored to win this runoff election. Even in a general election, it’s a tough state for a Democrat to win. The runoff system makes it even tougher, but it is not impossible. Mississippians who want a better future can have one. In electing the first black senator from the state since Reconstruction, Mississippi voters can make history and change the narrative of the much maligned Magnolia State. They can show the nation that Mississippians aren’t all nostalgic for days of yore, that plenty of its residents have an eye toward the future. They can show the nation that racists do not speak for Mississippi. They can show the nation that the Mississippi they thought they knew is something more and better and stronger than they imagined.
Every time I head south, as I did this past weekend for the Louisiana Book Festival, I find myself talking with progressive southerners (there are lots of us!) about the future of the south. It seems clear that states like Mississippi are on a precipice. These states are poised to leap into the future and help shape the policies and direction of this nation, but they are also at risk of falling backwards and getting left behind. It is dizzying.
Mississippi, as one of your native daughters, I beg you to take a step forward on November 27. I know Mississippi doesn’t make voting easy or convenient, especially for people in rural areas and especially for black people. I know there are people trying to convince you that your one vote doesn’t matter, but those people are liars. Your vote matters more than ever. You have the power to propel Mississippi into the future, to show the world that the state is more than a bunch of racists longing for the good ole days. Because, let’s face it, for many Mississippians, the good ole days have yet to arrive.
Please cast your vote for the future. Vote for the most qualified candidate, the one who has proven that he stands with and for Mississippi. Send Mike Espy to the U.S. Senate and make Mississippi proud.
NOTE: This blog has been edited to correct a factual error regarding the context of Hyde-Smith’s statement. Thanks to an astute reader for pointing it out. The error was all mine.