The Espy Award

If Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) is on the same career track as Boston's Bernard Cardinal Law, it's not too soon to consider what will become of Lott's Senate seat should he opt for retirement over a return to the back benches. Recent history offers little guidance to governors faced with filling a Senate vacancy. After Sen. Paul Wellstone's (D-Minn.) death, independent Gov. Jesse Ventura suggested he would name a Democrat but later reversed himself, picking soul mate and car-wash owner Dean Barkley. Prior to that, when Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) died in 2000, Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes could have chosen to fill the vacancy with civil-rights legend and U.S. Rep. John Lewis. Instead, guided by conventional political wisdom, Barnes tapped Sen. Zell Miller, a Democrat so conservative that his eventual defection to the GOP has been predicted almost from the moment he took his oath of office.

Like Ventura, Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D-Miss.) could pick a pal to keep the seat filled until an elected successor takes his or her place. Or he could follow Barnes' lead and name someone who's a Democrat in name only. Then again, Musgrove could do something as politically smart as it would be laudable: He could appoint Mike Espy to the U.S. Senate.

Full disclosure: I was Espy's chief speechwriter during his stint as secretary of agriculture. But I'm not the only one tossing this idea around. The chairman of Mississippi's Democratic Party, Rickey Cole, was quoted Tuesday in The Biloxi Sun Herald as saying that Espy would be the best choice to replace Lott. "He has Washington experience, and he's proven that he can build biracial coalitions," Cole said. "It would immediately begin the healing process."

Epsy isn't someone we've heard much about lately -- but there was a point not too long ago when some believed the young congressman turned Clinton cabinet member could become the first African American on a presidential ticket. And not without reason.

As a candidate running for the House from Mississippi, Espy excelled at something few African-American leaders ever do: winning support among blacks and moderate whites. Espy did this by embracing a Democratic centrism that was palatable to the conservative state he represented. For example, he didn't talk only about better schools and health care; he also understood the need to open new markets to Mississippi agricultural products, and to provide investment opportunities for business. Furthermore, Espy wasn't afraid to challenge the orthodoxies of the Democratic social agenda, proudly appearing in advertisements for the National Rifle Association. In the process, Espy became the most visible black man pictured with a shotgun since Black Panther Huey Newton. His politics may not be perfectly in line with the progressive wing of the Democratic party, but in Mississippi, he's undoubtedly the best liberals can hope for.

Because of Espy's centrist leanings, it was no surprise that he developed a close relationship with then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Later, after Clinton tapped Espy to head the sprawling U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Mississippian impressed skeptics with his willingness to challenge an institutional culture that almost seemed to conspire against innovation. Unlike many agriculture secretaries, Espy pulled few punches as he fought to modernize flood insurance, revamp meat inspections, improve nutrition services and expand rural development.

There's no question that, during his tenure in the Clinton administration, Espy stepped on a lot of toes and made his share of mistakes. That's when his troubles began. By Washington standards, the allegations of corruption made against Espy were just shy of trivial. Espy was exonerated in 1998, but not before the Clinton White House had thrown him to the wolves. Since then, the one time wunderkind of Mississippi politics has been back home, practicing law and raising his children.

In the last two weeks, Trent Lott has done a lot to remind the nation what Mississippi once was. By sending Espy to the Senate, Musgrove would have the opportunity to send a powerful message about what Mississippi -- and America -- can yet become. Most importantly, though, it would allow America to gain from the wisdom and expertise of a leader whose political career ended long before it should have.

Jim Grossfeld served as chief speechwriter for Espy and later for Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala. He is the past director of communications for House Democratic Whip David Bonior. He is currently president of Jim Grossfeld & Associates, LLC, a consulting firm based in Bethesda, Md.

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