Mike Espy talking to media at Highland Colony Baptist Church in Ridgeland, Miss., on Tuesday, November 27, 2018
Photo: Terrell Jermaine Starr

Ridgeland, Miss.—There were just as many members of media as there were voters when Mike Espy appeared at his voting station at Highland Colony Baptist Church, just a five-minute drive outside of Jackson.

The former congressman and agricultural secretary rolled up to the entrance in his SUV with his wife, Portia, and their family, to cast one of the many ballots he will need to earn an upset victory over his GOP challenger, Cindy Hyde-Smith, who appeared with Donald Trump in Tupelo, Miss., Monday night.

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While Espy has tried to downplay race and focus on issues that don’t offend white Mississippians, the subject has been impossible to avoid. Besides Hyde-Smith’s public lynching comments, nooses were hung at the state capital Monday, and Trump made racist statements about Espy during his Tupelo appearance.

“How does he fit in with Mississippi?” Trump asked about Espy. “How does he fit in?”

Trump didn’t have to use the words black, nigger, or Negro to make his point. We all knew what he meant: this black man isn’t supposed to represent this southern state.

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After Espy and his wife cast their ballots, he answered questions from the media. A reporter asked how he felt about race and racism playing a large role in this election. Espy talked about his appearance Monday night at New Horizon Church in Jackson and how he preferred to be there, drawing strength from the Lord, than at a rally, a clear shot at Trump.

He quoted W.E.B. Dubois, who once said the number one problem in the 20th century was the problem of the color line.

“He was right about that,” Espy said. “It is very unfortunate that in the 21st century, that’s still our problem, the problem of the color line. So what I am trying to do with my campaign is to reach across that line and bring everyone together. I talk a lot about healthcare. When your insurance company cancels your policy because of pre-existing conditions, they don’t look to see if you’re black or white. I’m African-American. I’m so proud of that. Just as if you’re white, you should be proud of that. You should be proud of what you are. But I am not dwelling on it. I am trying to bring everyone together for a common cause and rise above that acrimony and focus on the problems we all have as Mississippians.”

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Portia Ballard Espy, left, and Mike Espy, right, checking in to vote at Highland Colony Baptist Church on Tuesday, November 27, 2018.
Photo: Terrell Jermaine Starr

Indeed, the state’s economic issues negatively impact black and white residents alike. Nearly 20 percent of Mississippi’s residents are living below the poverty line. The state consistently ranks as among the top two poorest in the country. While the black poverty rate is more than twice that of whites, white people in Mississippi are still suffering from a roughly 13 percent poverty rate.

Given that reality, you would think Espy, a former agriculture secretary with national connections, would be appealing to white voters. But in interviews with black residents, it is clear they feel white people are too closely drawn to Trump and Cindy-Hyde’s racism than any candidate who would improve their economic standing.

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Kim Robinson, an education lobbyist who quit her job a few months ago to volunteer with Espy’s campaign full-time, was passing out campaign literature at the church event Espy mentioned. She is aware of the racism white people hold in the state, but is hopeful that some good white Republicans who do not approve of Trump will help move the needle in favor of Espy.

“I see a lot of optimism and a lot of hope,” said Robinson, who is black. “Republicans who would not traditionally vote on the Democratic ticket, I see them switching sides, or they will stay home because they just can’t vote for (Hyde-Smith).”

Hyde-Smith and Espy are running to fill the remaining two years of former Sen. Thad Cochran’s term. The winner will face a re-election bid in 2020. Cochran retired from Congress in April because of health issues. Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith to the seat in March.

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None of the white voters who left the polling station would share with the gaggle of media outside who they voted for. The black ones were far more open about their support for Espy.

“I’m not voting for that racist Trump,” an older black man said, even though Trump’s name is not on the ballot. “I’m not for that woman who’s talking about public lynchings, either.”

This has been a tiring campaign for Espy, but he realized he had more energy than he initially believed. If you aren’t used to hearing him speak, you’d assume his voice was hoarse from delivering daily stump speeches. That is not the case. Five years ago, he woke up with a voice that “the Lord didn’t give him.” Doctors have told him that it is a neurological condition in which a nerve commands his laryngeal muscles to spasm. He may have surgery for it later. He’s taking Botox shots to treat it for now.

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When Espy was elected to Congress in 1986, he became the first African-American to represent Mississippi at the federal level since Reconstruction. He was reelected three times before former President Bill Clinton appointed him agriculture secretary.

Espy comes from a prominent Mississippi family. His grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Huddleston, created a health insurance company and had 36 funeral homes. He also founded a newspaper that had a peak circulation of 100,000, as well as the hospital in which he and his twin sister were born. His father, Henry Espy Sr., studied under George Washington Carver of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and went on to become one of the first black USDA County Extension agents in Arkansas, according to Espy’s campaign website.

If elected, Espy wants to fight Trump’s tariff war against China, which he says is harming Mississippi farmers. As a former agriculture secretary whom Clinton bestowed immense power to negotiate international deals, including NAFTA, Espy would be a go-to senator at a particularly critical time. Trump is expected to escalate tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports in 2019.

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In an interview with The Root, Espy said he was confident that if enough white voters cross over and enough black voters come out, he could win. I asked if he ever imagined he would be running a campaign in a national political environment dominated by someone like Donald Trump. Espy, who has devoted most of his time to issues like education, healthcare, and the economy, went out of his way not to mention Trump by name.

“I’m not running against him,” Espy told me.

“I respect the office of the president irrespective of who is in it,” he continued. “If he does something that is good for our state, I’ll support it. But the reverse is also true. If he does something that is bad for our state, I’m going to oppose it. So, I’m not running against him. I’m running to uplift our state.”