Dan Murphy: Mike Espy Comes Out From the Shadows

The name Mike Espy should ring a bell with meat industry participants who’ve been around since the halcyon days of the first administration of Bill Clinton.

That’s because Espy was named by President Clinton in 1993 as his Secretary of Agriculture, the first African-American so named to that position. That appointment followed another “first” for the Howard University-educated lawyer: He was elected as a Democrat to Congress in 1986 from Mississippi’s 2nd congressional district, becoming the first African-American to represent the Magnolia State at the federal level since the Reconstruction Era more than a century earlier.

However, the whiff of scandal dogged Espy’s tenure at USDA. As The Washington Post reported in 1994, there were months of inquiry related to his alleged acceptance of various gifts and perks, including sports tickets, lodging and airfare. Later that year, White House officials discovered that a foundation run by Tyson Foods had provided a $1,200 scholarship to Espy’s girlfriend, Patricia Dempsey.

On Dec. 29, 1994, Espy resigned his post at USDA and in August 1997 he was indicted on charges of receiving improper gifts. However, he refused to enter into a plea bargain agreement with the Independent Counsel, sending the case to trial.

In December 1998, he was acquitted of all 30 criminal charges, despite the fact that Tyson Foods had previously pleaded guilty to felony charges of providing gifts to Espy and more than $20 million had been spent preparing and trying his case, according to news reports back then.

The jury deliberated less than 10 hours before finding Espy not guilty. As one of the jurors told The Post at the time, “This was the weakest, most bogus thing I ever saw. I can’t believe [Independent Counsel Donald] Smaltz ever brought this to trial.”

The newspaper reported that at least four other jurors echoed this view, leaving Espy free to depart from public life, resume his law career and fade into semi-obscurity for the next 20 years.

Until now.

Historical Connections
During and after his term at USDA, I had a couple opportunities to interview Espy, and he proved to be a persuasive speaker, surprisingly conservative politically, given his allegiance to Bill Clinton, and a staunch defender of the nation’s farmers and the larger agricultural community.

Not only that, but his background is linked to the history of the South in ways that provided him with a unique perspective he brought with him into public service.

For example: his grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Huddleston, was born the son of slaves on a Mississippi plantation. Yet he rose to relative affluence during Reconstruction, starting a health insurance company, opening a chain of funeral homes, launching a newspaper and building a hospital in which Espy and his twin sister, two of seven siblings, were born in 1953.

His father, Henry Espy Sr., was an agriculturist who graduated from Tuskegee Institute in Alabama as a protégé of Dr. George Washington Carver, known to schoolchildren as an entrepreneur who developed dozens of uses for peanuts, but more importantly was an advocate for diversifying crop production in the South and improving farming practices to protect the environment and preserve soil quality.

Henry Espy became one of the first black USDA County Extension agents in Arkansas, and Mike apparently inherited the agricultural gene. In comments during interviews and in his statements as USDA secretary, he criticized the federal bureaucracy as too often cumbersome and unresponsive to the needs of farmers. He also said government assistance to train and educate a new generation of farmers — especially farmers and producers of color — needed to be a priority, and he offered unqualified backing for market support programs.

I still remember asking him a “gotcha question” concerning a report circulating in the mid-1990s that revealed that many larger farmers were reaping hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in USDA payments. Doesn’t such largesse betray the principle of providing “a helping hand?” I asked. Can you really justify the fact that many Midwest and Western growers are earning more from conservation set-asides and market support payments than they are from selling their crops?

He answered that while such programs could always be fine-tuned, food and forage production are vital to the nation’s security, and that if it takes subsidies to keep some farmers in business and their farms in production, it was an investment well-spent.

“If [farmers] qualify for the programs, then they deserve whatever payments they get,” he said. “It’s not the size of some people’s checks, it’s the commitment to maintaining the viability of agriculture that matters.”

That left me without much of a comeback, and I had little choice at the time but to move on to other topics.

Fast forward to 2018, and as a candidate to fill the Senate seat of retiring Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Espy is described as a conservative-leaning moderate (a good thing), an advocate for agricultural investment and research (a very good thing), and despite a past that will no doubt re-surface as his campaign shifts into high gear this fall, a thoughtful, creative-minded leader who, if elected, would be one of the very few senators who would unashamedly put the nation’s agricultural community high up on the list of priorities where it deserves to be.

I’m sending him a check to help his campaign, with a request: Can I ask a follow-up to that failed gotcha question from back in 1994?

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.