Many times recently it has been said that Cindy Hyde-Smith, Mississippi’s junior U.S. Senator since 2018, is the least effective member of the Senate. That is arguably true, but she is by no means the very worst U.S. Senator to ever represent our state.
No, that dubious honor goes to a vile little man who represented Mississippi in the Senate from 1935 to 1947. His name was Theodore Bilbo. He had served a few terms in the state senate, one term as lieutenant-governor and two highly contentious terms as Mississippi governor before being elected to the U.S. Senate for the first time in 1934.
Although the word “racist” is often thrown around a little carelessly these days, there is no doubt it was one of many pejorative terms that fit Bilbo. Make it “rabid racist” and you would be right on the money.
He was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and proud of it. His hijinks included paternity lawsuits, bribery, and blatantly, gleefully cheating everyone, anything and everything any time he had a chance
While governor he openly condoned lynching. As a legislator he fought anti-lynching laws and absolutely opposed allowing black people to vote.
Ironically, although Bilbo preached far and wide that black people were inferior, he famously enjoyed consorting with black prostitutes. On one occasion he was caught with a black hooker at the old King Edward Hotel in Jackson. It was published that Bilbo had “slept with a Negro prostitute.”
Bilbo’s denial was an icon of his famous arrogance: “I did NOT sleep,” the 5’1’-inch governor declared.
In his classic book “Lanterns on the Levee,” William Alexander Percy left a description of Bilbo that still resonates 80 years later. Will Percy said:
“[Bilbo was] a pert little monster, glib and shameless, with that sort of cunning common to criminals which passes for intelligence. The people loved him. They loved him not because they were deceived by him, but because they understood him thoroughly; they said of him proudly, ‘He’s a slick little bastard.’ He was one of them and he had risen from obscurity to the fame of glittering infamy – it was as if they themselves had crashed the headlines.”
In 1934, Bilbo defeated incumbent U.S. Senator Hubert D. Stephens in the Democratic Primary. Stephens, a native of New Albany, was a well-educated, courtly aristocrat. He was an archetypical “Southern Gentleman,” and not a race-baiter. In short, Stephens was the kind of man whom Bilbo most despised: Hubert Stephens was what Bilbo could never aspire to be.
It was a typically vile and hateful Bilbo campaign. Bilbo was sworn in as Mississippi’s new U.S. Senator, January 3, 1935. He was elected twice more.
However, the last time Bilbo was elected to the U.S. Senate, in 1946, he had been caught in another bribery incident and other out-of-bounds behavior. The majority of the Senate refused to allow Bilbo to take his seat for a third term.
Enough about Bilbo. Mississippi is a different place, a much better place than it was in Bilbo’s day. There is no way Bilbo or anyone like him could be elected to statewide office here today
Back, now, to Mississippi’s junior U. S. Senator, Cindy Hyde-Smith.
The U.S. Senate has often been called the most exclusive club in America. The Senate is intentionally called the upper house of the federal legislature. Hamilton, Madison, Franklin and the other founders intended that U.S. Senators be the cream of the crop, the very best the various states can send as their representatives in congress; the most accomplished, the best educated, the wisest and most esteemed.
No way does Cindy Hyde-Smith fall as far short of those standards as the infamous Bilbo. This, though, is “damning with faint praise.”
She is not a horrid human being. Her manner is kind and friendly. There is no talk of her being mean or rude. Colleagues say she is a hard worker.
However, Hyde-Smith’s personal utterances and actions have contributed to the belief throughout the state and nation that she is a racist.
She attended elementary and high school at a segregation academy in Lawrence County. Hard to come down too hard on her about that. Most people attend grade schools and high school where their parents send them. Attending public school may not have been an option available to her.
But there was the incident in 2014 when Hyde-Smith visited Beauvoir, the house on the beach in Biloxi, which former Confederate President Jefferson Davis occupied after the Civil War. Hyde-Smith had herself photographed wearing a Confederate soldier’s cap and holding a Confederate rifle. She put the pictures on her Facebook page with the remark that the Beauvoir and the Confederate museum items were “Mississippi history at its best.”
However, Cindy Hyde-Smith was no longer a child when she made those remarks. In 2014, she was 55 years old and had served in the state senate for 12 years and as the state’s elected commissioner of agriculture and commerce for two years. Did that make her a confirmed racist. No. But it raises questions about her judgement and her sensitivity as a statewide elected official in a state with highest percentage of black residents (37%) in the country.
Seven-term U.S. Senator Thad Cochran resigned due to bad health early in 2018. Many were surprised when Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant offered the temporary appointment to Cochran’s seat to Hyde-Smith. Although she had been elected to statewide office in 2011, ag commissioner is not a particularly high-profile office in Mississippi.
Several Republican elected officials were more senior and better known than Hyde-Smith. Many Republicans who knew her well did not believe she had the skills to play in the big leagues. But, for reasons known only to him, Bryant appointed her.
Hyde-Smith said at the time that she, herself, did not understand why Bryant appointed her to the Senate. “This was never a goal. It was something that I did not want to do,” she said. However, Bryant appointed her effective April 9, 2018, to serve temporarily until that year’s general election.
She committed to run in the special election on November 6, 2018, to serve the last two years of the six-year term to which Cochran had been elected in 2014. Hyde-Smith faced Republican State Senator Chris McDaniel and former Democratic Congressman and Clinton Administration Agriculture Secretary, Mike Espy, in the “non-partisan” race.
Hyde-Smith was heavily favored to win the special election. Her two opponents had formidable problems. McDaniel had angered the Republican establishment in the state when he challenged Thad Cochran in the 2014 Republican Primary.
And Mike Espy was Democrat and a black man in a state that had not elected a black person to statewide office since the 19th century. Furthermore, although it was a “non-partisan” contest, the Democratic Party in Mississippi was an essentially defunct organization. What’s more, Espy had very little campaign money.
Then, at a small gathering in Tupelo just four days before the special election, Good Ol’ Country Girl Cindy put her arm around a local cattleman and declared, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
Hyde-Smith’s flippant remark about hanging was a bomb heard around the country. For those who already suspected her of racism and insensitivity to black people, it was gasoline on a fire.
Hundreds of black people had been lynched by hanging in Mississippi during the 19th and 20th centuries, the most recent in Pearl River County, Bilbo’s home county, in 1959. The remark was a hot item on national news.
Several major organizations, including Walmart, AT&T, Pfizer and Major League Baseball, demanded that Hyde-Smith refund the campaign contributions they had given her. She dodged the press and refused to apologize.
President Trump flew into Tupelo on November 1st to support Hyde-Smith’s bid for the remaining two years of Cochran’s term.
Cindy Hyde-Smith managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. She failed to win a majority in the November 6th election. She faced a runoff election, and it was not against fellow Republican McDaniel.
Her opponent in the November 27 runoff election would be black Democrat Mike Espy. Espy still had no money. There was still not a real Democratic Party organization in the state.
But many people, not all of them black or Democrats, were amazed and outraged by what Hyde-Smith had said about a public hanging. Several Republican friends made remarks to me including “How could she have been so stupid?” and “I was standing there when she said it and I couldn’t believe it!”
Hyde-Smith refused to apologize for the remark. To this day she has not apologized. In a debate with Espy before the runoff Hyde-Smith said she was sorry anyone had taken offense, but she didn’t say she was sorry for saying it. She said her words had been “twisted…turned into a political weapon to be used against me.”
President Trump flew to Mississippi still again the day before the runoff election for no other reason than to pull Hyde-Smith’s fat out of the fire. It worked. She beat Espy 54% to 46% on November 27.
In this year’s election next Tuesday, November 3, Hyde-Smith is seeking a full six-year term in the Senate seat to which she was appointed two years ago.
Her opponent again is former Democratic Congressman and former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy.
Polls indicate it could be a very close election this time.
The odds are against Espy. He’s still black. He’s still a Democrat, although a moderate to conservative one. And it’s still Mississippi.
President Trump will carry Mississippi next week even if he knocks the eagle off the top of the state capitol building with a hellfire missile.
The question is whether his coattails will be long enough to carry Cindy Hyde-Smith this time to a full term in the U.S. Senate. Trump faces a tough re-election victory of his own and has said he will not again come to Mississippi to help Hyde-Smith. He did endorse her by Twitter message.
This time around Espy has plenty of money. Major corporate donors were turned off by Hyde-Smith’s hanging comment four years ago and they have not donated to her campaign this year.
In fact, federal campaign finance figures show Espy raised five times as much money as Hyde-Smith during the last three months. He raked in another $3.8-million since Oct. 1.
Espy claims he has a new data set that makes it possible for his campaign to locate 100,000 black Mississippi voters who supported former President Barack Obama in 2008 but who have never shown up at the polls since then. He says they have contact information for these individuals and are contacting them personally.
Espy, while black and a Democrat, has a lot of friends among the wealthy planters and other business-people over in the Delta. They believe he treated them well as their congressman and as ag secretary and they like him. They know he is by no means a liberal, and is in fact a serious businessman, as they are.
There is also a large element of Trump voters who feel Hyde-Smith has been an embarrassment to the state. They consider her a mediocrity at best and lacking the intellectual and communication skills to be a competitive long-term player in United States Senate.
A good many people, Republicans and independents, are also considering how much sheer fun it would be to elect a smart black guy to the Senate from Mississippi. They are tired of their Yankee friends and kin saying what a backward, racist place Mississippi is. Electing a distinguished and experienced black man would perhaps put a stop to that crap for a while.
Realistically, Hyde-Smith still has huge political advantages over Espy, although he seems to me to be the smarter and better qualified of the two.
It’s gonna be fun to see how it turns out
—J W Shiverdecker
More on Hyde-Smith issues: https://www.nemiss.news/cindy-hyde-smith-dont-talk-to-news-reporters/Cindy Hyde-Smith, Gov. Theodore Bilbo, Haley Barbour, Hubert Durrett Stephens, Mike Espy, MS politics, Northeast MS news, President Donald Trump