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CHAPTER 1 Introduction . . . the door of this part of the federal government is open to merit of every description. -lames Madison, Federalist #52 The Candidate's Tale In November 1986, voters in Mississippi's Second Congressional District narrowly elected Democrat Mike Espy as their U.S. Representative . The first black member of Congress from the state since Reconstruction and one of only six successful challengers in the general election, Espy reversed a century of white supremacy in the Mississippi Delta and bucked the tide of incumbency in the nation. He followed up his remarkable victory two years later with a smashing win over his Republican opponent in which he polled 65 percent of the vote and gained the support of over one-third of the white electorate . In 1990 he was reelected with 85 percent of the vote.' There was nothing inevitable about the rise of this young lawyer from Yazoo and the political transformation he epitomized. The Second Congressional District was not automatically a black or Democratic constituency, although it had been redrawn twice under court order to enhance African-American representation in the Mississippi delegation. But under the first districting plan in 1982, a black state legislator, Robert Clark, lost a close election in what was then an open seat, while under the second plan in 1984, with the presence of African-American residents increased to 58 percent, he was narrowly defeated once more. Some observers thought that Clark could have won his first race if the 1984 district boundaries had been in effect earlier (Barone and Ujifusa 1987, 655). He was seriously underfinanced in both campaigns, however, and he had to contend with the inherent marginality of the district, which caused it to divide evenly I. For more detailed accounts of Mike Espy's political career, see Swain 1993, chapter 4. 2 Candidates, Congress, and the American Democracy along party lines in presidential elections. Espy believed that the district was problematic for a black politician because of the relatively low turnout rates of the African-American constituents who lived within its boundaries and because he thought the census data had overestimated the number of black residents (Swain 1993,77).2 Despite the intent of the court to enhance African-American representation from Mississippi in Congress, then, the racial and party cleavages within the district appeared so intractable to political observers that no legislator, black or white, Democrat or Republican, seemed likely to secure it for very long (Barone and Ujifusa 1985,742). Espy's candidacy transformed the district's tendency toward racial competition and political marginality in a remarkably short time. Although he capitalized on the black majority established by court order, Espy's personal appeal and tactical skill were the decisive factors in converting the district into a safe Democratic seat.3 He nationalized the campaign by attracting hundreds of thousands of dollars in political action committee (PAC) contributions, which enabled him to spend slightly more than his incumbent opponent in 1986 and to outspend his challenger in 1988 by four to one. Espy also drew on his contacts within the Democratic Party and his oratorical skill within the black community to mobilize a vigorous grass roots operation . As the Almanac ofAmerican Politics noted, "Espy ran a superior campaign, with a targeted voter registration and turnout drive more sophisticated than any Mississippi had seen" (Barone and Ujifusa 1989, 667). At the same time, Espy tapped the populist streak that still persists in the rural South by linking his incumbent opponent to the highly unpopular agricultural policies of the Reagan Administration. Once elected, Espy reached beyond his African-American constituents , forging a political alliance with fellow Mississippian Jamie Whitten, the conservative chairman of the House Appropriations Committee , to bring additional federal aid to the Delta region. He developed ties to such organizations as the National Rifle Association, for which he appeared in advertisements, and he also cultivated local soybean and catfish farmers by helping them develop new markets. His voting record, according to Swain (1993, 86), has been considerably less liberal than other black members of Congress, although it is less conservative than most other southern Democrats. With this judicious 2. This perception was shared by African-American state lawmakers, who subsequently pushed hard during the 1992 reapportionment to increase the percentage of AfricanAmerican citizens to 65 percent to ensure that it would not revert to the control of a white politician. 3. Indeed. Parker (1991) treats him as an anomaly. Introduction 3 blend of constituency service...


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