Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy says he learned a number of lessons during his two decades as a public servant, many of them coming while he fought allegations of impropriety while serving in President Clinton’s cabinet. Espy was eventually found innocent of the claims.
Espy, also a former U.S. congressman, delivered an honest, unflinching recount of his experiences during a symposium on Thursday, March 27, that was sponsored by Jackson State University’s Institute of Government.
Espy became the first African-American U.S. congressman from Mississippi since the Reconstruction Era when he was elected in 1986. His campaign was considered a political long-shot because it was widely believed an African-American couldn’t win the seat. But, Espy said he campaigned hard, and a book was written about the race that was eventually read by Barack Obama, who used some of the strategies while campaigning in rural Illinois for a Senate seat.
“We wanted to excite the black vote, without inciting the white vote,” Espy said of his campaign. “We drove 2,000 miles per week. It was a highly-organized campaign for its day.”
As a congressman, Espy served on the Budget Committee. He stayed in the U.S. House until 1993, when President Bill Clinton appointed him agriculture secretary.
During the symposium, Espy discussed his resignation from Clinton’s cabinet under “a difficult cloud.” He had been indicted on 39 charges related to allegations he accepted gifts, including football tickets, while serving as agriculture secretary. He was eventually cleared of all the charges, but had to rebuild his life and reputation.
“What do you do when you fall into the pits of despair,” Espy said. “When trouble comes, develop a plan to help you as you go through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. You cannot forget to pray. And, don’t burn bridges,” Espy told an audience of about 160 at the Mississippi Public Broadcasting auditorium.
Espy resumed his career in Mississippi, where he’s a successful attorney. He currently has his own firms, Mike Espy PLLC and AE Agritrade, Inc. He also serves as counsel to Morgan & Morgan PLLC, the nation’s largest plaintiff’s law firm, and as county attorney for Madison County.
Espy conducted two symposiums for the institute as its first Scholar-in-Residence, said Dr. Otha Burton, executive director of the Institute of Government. The March 27 topic was ”Reflections: 20 Years a Public Servant.” The topic of the first symposium, held a week earlier on the JSU campus, was ”Political Dysfunction: Effects on Economic Trade and America’s Standing in the World.”
“Attorney Espy’s presence, enthusiasm, and vast national and international experiences helped launch the Scholars-in-Residence series with great success. Accolades from students, faculty, administrators, and the urban community we serve followed both presentations,” said Burton. “JSU President Carolyn Meyers applauded Attorney Espy for his availability and willingness to serve the university in this capacity.”
It was announced that going forward, President Meyers has approved the Institute’s Scholars-in-Residence series to be named in honor of Alphonso Michael Espy, said Burton. Future guests serving in the series will be presented each fall and spring semester.
The symposiums were conducted in collaboration with the College of Liberal Arts and the College of Public Service.