BELZONI, Miss. (AP) — By the time U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy arrived at a restaurant near a highway that cuts through cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta, he had already received a celebrity's welcome.
A half-dozen law enforcement vehicles flashed blue lights and blared sirens as they escorted his campaign bus through Belzoni — a town of 1,900 that bills itself as Catfish Capital of the World.
People stepped outside to see the commotion on an otherwise quiet Wednesday. Some waved. Others shook their heads. The bus stopped near the Humphreys County Courthouse and Espy hopped out to greet people who held up cellphones to snap pictures.
In 1986, Espy became Mississippi's first Black congressman since Reconstruction. He served as U.S. agriculture secretary under President Bill Clinton in 1993 and 1994, and then returned to law practice.
Now, in a state where 38% of residents are Black, Espy is trying to become Mississippi’s first Black U.S. senator since Reconstruction. In a rematch of a 2018 special election, Espy is trying to unseat Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, the first woman to represent the state in Congress.
Hyde-Smith was appointed to temporarily serve in early 2018 after longtime Republican Sen. Thad Cochran retired. The special election filled the final two years of the term. This race is for a full six years.
Hyde-Smith, 61, campaigns as an ally of President Donald Trump and has received his support, while Espy, 66, is endorsed by the Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden. A Libertarian candidate in the Senate race, Jimmy L. Edwards, is running a low-budget campaign.
At a Belzoni restaurant called Da Soul Food Palace, about three dozen people — most of them Black — listened as Espy described Hyde-Smith as an ineffective senator who had failed to hold town-hall meetings. He talked about wanting to improve rural health care and make Mississippi a place where people can find good jobs.
Espy reminded the group that Hyde-Smith had once posed for photos at the last home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and that she had praised it as the best of Mississippi history. Espy frequently calls his opponent “Confederate Cindy.”
“Now, you know I’m not going to be the senator for African Americans only," Espy said.
A man responded: “That’s right.”
“I’m going to be the senator for everybody in Mississippi," Espy continued. “I don’t care about your race. I don’t care about your income. I don’t care about your gender. I don’t care about your party affiliation. I don’t care about your sexual orientation. If God made you, I’m for you.”
Bobbie Miller, a former mayor of Isola, said after the gathering that she has always considered Espy “a straightforward man."
“If he gets in this position, he is going to be for all people. And that’s what we need,” Miller said. “We as people, we’re here and we should have a whole lot more, and things should be better than what they are.”
The next day, Hyde-Smith made several appearances in the Jackson area. During a brief exchange with reporters, she was asked about Espy saying she hurts Mississippi's image.
“You know, haters are just gonna hate," Hyde-Smith said.
Republican U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee appeared with Hyde-Smith at a luncheon in Madison. Hyde-Smith then went Richland City Hall, which displays the Ten Commandments on stone tablets by the entrance. She spoke to about three dozen people, most of them white.
People nodded as Hyde-Smith talked about her pride in confirming Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett and other conservative federal judges. Hyde-Smith, who's a former state senator and former state agriculture commissioner, said she wants to reduce regulations on farmers and businesses. That won applause from the audience.
“With my opponent and I are very stark differences," Hyde-Smith said. "And I just want to be that person there with the conservative values, the belief in God that I’m willing to stand there and make sure our religious freedoms are protected, that we can raise our children the way we want to raise our children and worship the way that we want to worship.”
Richard Norton, who retired as a master sergeant after 40 years in the Army, said afterward that he supports Hyde-Smith and Trump because he believes they have the right ideas about the economy.
“If you give away stuff and give away stuff, sooner or later you’re going to run out,” Norton said. “And, those who have, have it for a reason. And those who don’t have, they don’t have it for a reason because they won’t get up and do what they need to do. You’ve got to have a happy medium, you know? You’ve got to give a little to get a little.”
Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.