Mike Espy

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Mike Espy
25th United States Secretary of Agriculture
In office
January 22, 1993 – December 31, 1994
PresidentBill Clinton
Preceded byEdward Madigan
Succeeded byDan Glickman
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Mississippi's 2nd district
In office
January 3, 1987 – January 22, 1993
Preceded byWebb Franklin
Succeeded byBennie Thompson
Personal details
Alphonso Michael Espy

(1953-11-30) November 30, 1953 (age 70)
Yazoo City, Mississippi, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
SpousePortia Ballard
RelativesChuck Espy (nephew)
Henry Espy (brother)
EducationHoward University (BA)
Santa Clara University (JD)
WebsiteCampaign website

Alphonso Michael Espy (born November 30, 1953)[1] is an American lawyer and politician who served as the 25th United States secretary of agriculture from 1993 to 1994. He was both the first African American and the first person from the Deep South to hold the position. A member of the Democratic Party, Espy previously served as the U.S. representative for Mississippi's 2nd congressional district from 1987 to 1993.

In March 2018, Espy announced his candidacy for the United States Senate seat being vacated by Thad Cochran. Espy placed second in the November 6 nonpartisan special election before facing Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith in a November 27 runoff. Espy was defeated by Hyde-Smith, but garnered more than 46 per cent of the vote in what was the closest U.S. Senate election in Mississippi since 1988. He was the Democratic nominee again in the 2020 election, losing by ten percentage points against Hyde-Smith in a rematch.

Early life and education[edit]

Espy was born in Yazoo City, Mississippi.[1] He is the grandson of Thomas J. Huddleston Sr., founder of the Afro-American Sons and Daughters, a fraternal society that operated the Afro-American Hospital, a leading provider of health care for black people in the state from the 1920s to the 1970s. Espy attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., and was active in student politics, holding several elective positions. He earned his Juris Doctor from Santa Clara University School of Law in California in 1978.[citation needed] He currently serves on the board of directors of the Mississippi Center for Justice.


Espy with President Bill Clinton in 1993
Espy as Secretary of Agriculture

Early years[edit]

Espy was an attorney with Central Mississippi Legal Services between 1978 and 1980 and was later the Assistant Secretary of State to Mississippi Legal Services. From 1980 to 1984, he was the Assistant Secretary of the State to the Public Lands Division.[citation needed]

Espy was an Assistant State Attorney General from 1984 to 1985.[citation needed]

Congress and the Secretary of Agriculture[edit]

In November 1986, Espy was elected as a Democrat to the 100th Congress from Mississippi's 2nd congressional district. He defeated two-term Republican Webb Franklin to become the first African-American to represent Mississippi at the federal level since the Reconstruction era,[2] a position once held by Mississippi Republican Senator Hiram Revels in 1870-1871. Espy was reelected three times.

In December 1992, Espy was chosen by President-elect Bill Clinton to be the Secretary of Agriculture in the new administration.[3] Following his confirmation by the Senate in late January 1993, Espy resigned from his seat in the House of Representatives.

The first African American and first person from the Deep South to hold the position,[4] Espy served as Secretary of Agriculture from 1993 to 1994. He announced his resignation in October 1994, following questions from the White House over his use of government perks and acceptance of gifts.[4] He was indicted in 1997 for receiving improper gifts, but acquitted of all 30 charges in 1998.[5]

In October 2007, Espy crossed party lines to endorse Republican Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour's reelection campaign.[6]

Private law career[edit]

In 2008, Espy became an attorney at Morgan & Morgan, a nationwide law firm, where he handles general plaintiff's law, mass tort, bond and governmental finance, and international relations cases. One of his notable cases was the Pigford lawsuit, where Espy worked in conjunction with a black farmers' advocacy group, the National Black Farmers Association, to represent those farmers.[citation needed]

Senate campaigns[edit]


On March 5, 2018, Republican Senator Thad Cochran announced he would resign as of April 1 for health reasons, triggering a special election. Espy announced his intention to run for the seat that same day, becoming the first declared candidate in the race.[7][8][9] “It’s official. I’m running to be Mississippi’s next U.S. Senator. Too many people here can’t find a decent job, rural hospitals are closing, and the price for education is just too high,” Espy said in a tweet on Tuesday.[1] He called Cochran "a person I admire and respect, and who has done so much for Mississippi over his tenure."[10]

In 2018, CBS described Espy as a conservative Democrat.[11] He has identified his positions as moderate,[12] making a centrist pitch for his Senate campaign.[13] The Clarion Ledger wrote that Espy sought to "play up his bipartisan credentials, like endorsing former Republican Gov. Haley Barbour. Steer the conversation away from anything controversial, even race, and back to health care."[14] When asked by MSNBC's Chris Matthews to comment on President Trump's criticism of several African-American journalists, Espy "refused to bite", instead redirecting the interview to health care.[14]

A nonpartisan special election took place on November 6, 2018, the same day as the regularly scheduled U.S. Senate election for the seat held by Roger Wicker, who was running for reelection. Party affiliations were not printed on the ballot.[15] After no candidate gained a simple majority of the vote,[16] a runoff election between Espy and Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith was held on November 27.[17] Espy lost the runoff with 46% of the vote.[18]


Three days after losing the Senate special election runoff to Hyde-Smith, on November 30, 2018, his 65th birthday, Espy filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to run for the seat again in 2020.[19] He lost the general election again with 44% of the vote.[20]

Political positions[edit]


National Journal noted that his liberal social views are mixed with his support for cutting the federal budget and protecting Mississippi's defense and agricultural industries.[21] In 2018, Espy said that he wanted to cut the government's budget and that he supports free trade.[22] He said he probably would have voted for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 but that he wants to "make sure people see the benefits".[14]


Espy supports gun ownership and received the National Rifle Association of America's (NRA) Silver Rifle Award in 1988 for supporting its positions on gun laws.[23] In 2018, the NRA endorsed Espy's opponent, Cindy Hyde-Smith, for the U.S. Senate, and did not give Espy a rating.[24] In 2019, Espy, who had announced his candidacy for Hyde-Smith's seat, said that her objection to a unanimous consent motion to adopt a House gun control bill, causing the bill to go through the usual committee process, was "a failure of leadership that puts our children's lives in danger."[25]

Health care[edit]

Espy believes that the decision by Republicans to deny an expansion of Medicaid is why so many rural hospitals in Mississippi have closed.[26]


Espy opposes a border wall, citing cost concerns.[14] He opposes the Trump administration's family separation policy.[14]

Social issues[edit]

In 1986, running for Congress, Espy was considered pro-choice on abortion.[27] In 2018, he said he was moderate on abortion; he supports Roe v. Wade but opposes abortion personally.[28] Espy said during his Senate campaign that he would work with anyone regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or disability.[29]

Corruption trial and acquittal[edit]

On August 27, 1997, Espy was indicted on charges of receiving improper gifts, including sports tickets, lodging, and airfare. Espy refused to plea bargain and on December 2, 1998, he was acquitted of all 30 criminal charges in the trial. Independent Counsel Donald Smaltz presented more than 70 witnesses during the trial and spent more than $20 million preparing and trying the case.[30]

During testimony before the jury, the prosecution's star witness told Smaltz: "God knows, if I had $30 million, I could find dirt on you, sir."[31] During the trial, Smaltz protested that the defense was injecting race into the trial in what he saw as an appeal to a mostly black jury.

The defense rested without calling any witnesses, arguing simply that the prosecution had not proved its case. The jury deliberated less than 10 hours before finding Espy not guilty on all charges. One of the jurors said, "This was the weakest, most bogus thing I ever saw. I can't believe Mr. Smaltz ever brought this to trial." At least four other jurors echoed this view, though less pointedly.[32] Barbara Bisoni, the only white juror, said Smaltz's case "had holes" and that race never entered into the deliberations.[32]

Related cases[edit]

In 1996, Sun-Diamond Growers was fined $1.5 million for giving Espy $6,000 in gifts; in March 1998 it won a reversal at the Court of Appeals level.[33] Independent Counsel Smaltz appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals, finding that the gratuities statute requires a link between a gift and an official act. Unable to make such a link, Smaltz dismissed the gratuities charge against Sun-Diamond. The court's unanimous April 1999 opinion, by Justice Antonin Scalia, stated that the prosecutor's interpretation of the law was so broad that even a high school principal could be in legal trouble for giving a souvenir baseball cap to a visiting Secretary of Education.[34] The Sun-Diamond decision played a pivotal role in Espy's later acquittal because Smaltz was unable to link gifts he received to any official act.

In a separate case during the same investigation, Espy's Chief of Staff, Ronald Blackley, was convicted in late 1997 on three counts of making false statements[35] and sentenced to 27 months in prison.[36]

Controversy also arose in 1994 from a White House discovery that a foundation run by Tyson Foods had given Espy's then girlfriend, Patricia Dempsey, a $1,200 scholarship.[4] Administration officials said that the discovery of this scholarship was what forced Espy to resign as Secretary of Agriculture.[4] In December 1997, Tyson Foods pleaded guilty to felony charges of giving Espy gifts.[37]

Personal life[edit]

He married Sheila Bell, with whom he had two children before they divorced.[38] Espy married Portia Ballard in 1999.[39]

Electoral history[edit]

Mississippi's 2nd congressional district: results 1986–1992
Election results
Year Democrat Votes % Republican Votes % Other Party Votes %
1986[40] Mike Espy 73,119 51.71% Webb Franklin 68,292 48.29%
1988[41] Mike Espy 112,401 64.74% Jack Coleman 59,827 34.46% Dorothy Benford Independent 1,403 0.81%
1990[42] Mike Espy 59,393 84.11% Dorothy Benford 11,224 11.89%
1992[43] Mike Espy 135,162 77.97% Dorothy Benford 38,191 22.03%

Senate results[edit]

United States Senate special election in Mississippi, 2018[44]
Party Candidate Votes %
Nonpartisan Cindy Hyde-Smith (incumbent) 389,995 41.25%
Nonpartisan Mike Espy 386,742 40.90%
Nonpartisan Chris McDaniel 154,878 16.38%
Nonpartisan Tobey Bartee 13,852 1.47%
Total votes 945,467 100%
United States Senate special election runoff in Mississippi, 2018[44]
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Nonpartisan Cindy Hyde-Smith (incumbent) 486,769 53.63% -6.27%
Nonpartisan Mike Espy 420,819 46.37% +8.48%
Total votes 907,588 100% N/A
United States Senate election in Mississippi, 2020[45]
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith (incumbent) 709,539 54.10% +0.47%
Democratic Mike Espy 578,806 44.13% -2.24%
Libertarian Jimmy Edwards 23,152 1.77% N/A
Total votes 1,311,497 100%

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Applebome, Peter (December 25, 1992). "THE TRANSITION; Clinton's Last Selections for the Cabinet Reflect His Quest for Diversity". The New York Times. Retrieved June 28, 2020.
  2. ^ Hall, Carla (December 19, 1986). "Espy's Mississippi Milestone". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 18, 2018.
  3. ^ Locin, Mitchell (December 25, 1992). "Clinton Finishes Cabinet Of Diversity". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved March 18, 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d Devroy, Ann; Schmidt, Susan (October 4, 1994). "Agriculture Secretary Espy Resigns". The Washington Post. p. A01. Retrieved March 18, 2018.
  5. ^ Lewis, Neil A. (December 3, 1998). "Espy is Acquitted on Gifts Received While in Cabinet". New York Times. Retrieved November 29, 2018.
  6. ^ Kittredge, Brett (October 10, 2007). "Text of Mike Espy's Endorsement of Haley Barbour". Majority in Mississippi. Archived from the original on November 12, 2007. Retrieved November 12, 2007.
  7. ^ "Espy announces run for Cochran Senate seat". Clarion Ledger. Retrieved March 6, 2018.
  8. ^ McCarthy, Waverly (March 5, 2018). "Mike Espy to run for Thad Cochran's Senate seat". Mississippi News Now. Retrieved March 5, 2018.
  9. ^ "The Latest: Former ag secretary Espy running for Senate". The Sacramento Bee. March 5, 2018. Retrieved March 5, 2018.
  10. ^ L, Megha (March 6, 2018). "Who Is Mike Espy? Thad Cochran's Senate Seat Bid By Clinton-Era Official". International Business Times. Retrieved March 5, 2018.
  11. ^ "The big seven races that will (probably) decide who controls the Senate". Retrieved June 26, 2018.
  12. ^ Elliott, David. "Senatorial candidate Mike Espy says he'll 'Put Mississippi First'". Retrieved June 26, 2018.
  13. ^ Sullivan, Sean (April 6, 2018). "Democrat Mike Espy announces bid for Senate seat in Mississippi". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved July 1, 2018.
  14. ^ a b c d e "A look at Mike Espy before US Senate runoff: People over party, keeping head down". The Clarion Ledger. Retrieved November 25, 2018.
  15. ^ Rakich, Nathaniel (March 6, 2018). "How Things Could Go Wrong For Republicans In Mississippi's New Senate Race". FiveThirtyEight. Retrieved April 28, 2018.
  16. ^ "The Latest: Mississippi has 3 more weeks of US Senate race". AP NEWS. November 7, 2018. Retrieved November 8, 2018.
  17. ^ "2018 Elections Calendar - Mississippi Secretary of State" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on November 9, 2018. Retrieved October 30, 2018.
  18. ^ "GOP Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith Wins Runoff in Mississippi". Bloomberg News. November 28, 2018. Retrieved November 29, 2018.
  19. ^ Greenwood, Max (November 30, 2018). "Espy files to run for Senate in 2020, setting up possible rematch with Hyde-Smith". The Hill. Archived from the original on November 30, 2018. Retrieved November 30, 2018.
  20. ^ "State of Mississippi OFFICIAL 2020 GENERAL ELECTION CERTIFIED RESULTS" (PDF). State of Mississippi Secretary of State. Retrieved December 14, 2020.
  21. ^ "Can Mike Espy Win in Mississippi? | Tribune Content Agency (April 13, 2018)". Tribune Content Agency. Archived from the original on July 1, 2018. Retrieved July 1, 2018.
  22. ^ "Senator candidate Mike Espy aims for Mississippi's African-American base". Archived from the original on June 27, 2018. Retrieved June 26, 2018.
  23. ^ Willis, Jay (November 13, 2018). "How a Democrat Could Swipe a Senate Seat in Deep-Red Mississippi". GQ. Archived from the original on November 14, 2018. Retrieved November 14, 2018.
  24. ^ "In Mississippi, Republican concern rises over a U.S. Senate runoff that should have been a romp". The Washington Post. Retrieved November 19, 2018.
  25. ^ "House background check bill will move to Senate committee after Hyde-Smith objects to fast tracking". November 14, 2019.
  26. ^ "Aiming for Alabama-like Victory, Espy Opens 'Modern' Campaign Headquarters | JFP Mobile | Jackson, Mississippi". m.jacksonfreepress.com. Retrieved October 26, 2018.
  27. ^ Greenhouse, Linda. "WASHINGTON TALK; A Turning Point On the Abortion Issue?". Retrieved June 26, 2018.
  28. ^ "What you need to know about Mississippi's special Senate race, candidates". The Clarion Ledger. Retrieved November 14, 2018.
  29. ^ Elliott, David. "Senatorial candidate Mike Espy says he'll 'Put Mississippi First'". Retrieved June 26, 2018.
  30. ^ "OIC Smaltz: Final Report". Archived from the original on June 2, 2003. Retrieved May 3, 2003.
  31. ^ "Was this a bad idea? - December 14, 1998". www.cnn.com.
  32. ^ a b Espy Acquitted in Gifts Case. Washingtonpost.com (December 5, 1998). Retrieved on September 14, 2011.
  33. ^ Court Sets Aside Fine Against Sun-Diamond , Los Angeles Times, March 21, 1998
  34. ^ Supreme Court rules Sun Diamond Growers did not violate federal law in Espy case - April 27, 1999. Cnn.com (April 27, 1999). Retrieved on September 14, 2011.
  35. ^ Stout, David (June 6, 1999). "Prosecution That Spared Espy Leaves a Top Aide in Ruins". Retrieved November 12, 2018.
  36. ^ "Donald Smaltz - Ron Blackley - Secrets Of An Independent Counsel - FRONTLINE - PBS". www.pbs.org.
  37. ^ M. Alex Johnson, Walking the walk, on the assembly line , NBC News, March 24, 2005
  38. ^ "ESPY, Alphonso Michael (Mike)". United States House of Representatives. Retrieved December 17, 2018.
  39. ^ Barron, James; Kilgannon, Corey (April 27, 1999). "Public Lives". New York Times. Retrieved December 17, 2018.
  40. ^ "Federal Elections 86: Election Results for U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives" (PDF). Federal Election Commission. May 1987. p. 57. Retrieved March 18, 2018.
  41. ^ "Federal Elections 88: Election Results for U.S. President, U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives" (PDF). Federal Election Commission. June 1988. p. 51. Retrieved March 18, 2018.
  42. ^ "Federal Elections 90: Election Results for U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives" (PDF). Federal Election Commission. April 1991. p. 31. Retrieved March 18, 2018.
  43. ^ "Federal Elections 92: Election Results for U.S. President, U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives" (PDF). Federal Election Commission. June 1993. p. 72. Retrieved March 18, 2018.
  44. ^ a b "2018 Mississippi special election results". Retrieved June 10, 2019.
  45. ^ "State of Mississippi OFFICIAL 2020 GENERAL ELECTION CERTIFIED RESULTS" (PDF). State of Mississippi Secretary of State. Retrieved December 14, 2020.

External links[edit]

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Mississippi's 2nd congressional district

Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by United States Secretary of Agriculture
Succeeded by
Party political offices
Preceded by Democratic nominee for U.S. Senator from Mississippi
(Class 2)

2018, 2020
Most recent
U.S. order of precedence (ceremonial)
Preceded byas Former US Cabinet Member Order of precedence of the United States
as Former US Cabinet Member
Succeeded byas Former US Cabinet Member