U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy met with students and local feminist groups in Oxford this weekend before traveling to Jackson for the opening of his campaign office.
Espy visited campus Friday morning for an exclusive interview with The Daily Mississippian and later sat down for lunch in Odom Hall with a student group representing various organizations around campus. He also spoke to local members of Famished Feminists and Wise Women of Oxford at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church just off the Square.
Throughout his stop in Oxford, Espy repeated that he wants to use his representation to amplify student voices.
“I think the opportunity to have met and discussed with so many different people their wishes and desires … talking with students about their disappointments about graduating and not having anywhere else to go — that’s meaningful, and I’ll be able to incorporate those ideas into my programs as senator,” Espy said.
Espy was referencing the phenomenon known as “brain drain,” in which college students graduate and leave their school’s state in search of employment elsewhere. Mississippi has recently felt the burn of brain drain, and the topic often surfaces when politicians talk about education. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Mississippi has lost 4 percent of its millennial population since 2010.
“I don’t want (recent graduates) to leave for the wrong reasons,” Espy said. “That would be that there’s no opportunity here: no jobs, no great income, no tech companies that they could begin with. So those are the things that I want to remedy.”
Espy, a Democrat, is running in November’s special election for the Senate seat left open by Republican Thad Cochran’s resignation earlier this year. Espy represented Mississippi’s 2nd District in the U.S. House from 1987-93 as the state’s first black member of Congress since Reconstruction. He later served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from January 1993 to December 1994.
If elected, Espy would become the first African American to represent Mississippi in the Senate since Reconstruction.
He said he wants to be known as an innovator in the Senate and wants to represent a new symbol for Mississippi, a state deeply entrenched in the national debate about Confederate symbols. Espy remembers being in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in the early 2000s to watch his son, wide receiver and punt returner Mike Espy, storm the field with his teammates but remaining seated as the band played “Dixie.”
“I didn’t want my standing to be disguised as (being) affiliated to the song or the lyrics to the song,” Espy said. “So I — along with many, many other parents — would always sit down, and I think someone at the university took note of that, because that song was changed the third year he played on the team.”
Espy said he carries his experiences with today’s Mississippi with him, and that’s partially why he’s running for office. He said he would be proud to represent Mississippi as a state looking forward to great things, with an African American representative at the national level.
“I’m not running to be something. I’m running to do something. That’s very important. Because you can’t always choose history — history chooses you,” Espy said during his Friday afternoon lunch with students.
Senior international studies major John Ramming Chappell hosted the discussion, which featured members of the Black Student Union, College Democrats, Mississippi Votes, doctoral programs and other groups.
Talk of education and college affordability dominated the conversation, and many students voiced their concerns about the state of public education in Mississippi.
“I would like to see Mississippi education fully funded, and I would like to see research-based education policies — especially input from teachers,” Ainsley Ash, vice president of College Democrats, said
Political science major Kynnedi Henry said she’d like to see greater statewide access to quality education.
“I don’t think that regions of Mississippi should be so far behind in education versus others,” Henry said. “I believe that the status of our education is really representative of the status of Mississippi, the status of the future.”
Espy also laid out his policies on various controversial topics, including abortion, immigration and gun control. He claimed a pro-choice, anti-abortion stance and described his immigration stance as one for strong borders combined with moral policy. He mentioned his former involvement with rifle teams in college and explained his familiarity with the National Rifle Association.
“I did not leave the NRA. The NRA left me,” he said. “I don’t believe in that program anymore.”
Espy gave his personal advice to the students and stated his eventual goals for all students in the state, even those who may travel elsewhere after graduation.
“I want to make sure that you leave Mississippi but that you want to come back,” Espy said. “Because the world is out there … But I want to make sure that you know that in your heart you can come back (to Mississippi) and there’s a job for you that pays a wage for you enabling you to raise a family.”
With no partisan primaries before the special election, Espy will face incumbent Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith and Republican Chris McDaniel as well as Democrat Tobey Bartee on the Nov. 6 ballot. The top two finishers will face one another in a runoff election, barring a majority decision on Nov. 6.