Having served as both a US congressman and US secretary of agriculture by the time he was forty, Mike Espy seemed on his way to a long and successful political career before he was brought down by an influence-peddling scandal. Born on 30 November 1953 in Yazoo City, Mississippi, Alphonso Michael “Mike” Espy earned a bachelor’s degree from Howard University and a law degree from Santa Clara Law School in 1978. He worked with Central Mississippi Legal Services from 1978 to 1980, quickly climbing the career ladder to become chief of the Mississippi Legal Services and assistant secretary of state.
Espy subsequently served as assistant secretary of Mississippi’s Public Lands Division (1980–84) and as assistant attorney general and director of the state’s Consumer Protection Division (1984–85). In 1986 he was elected to represent the state’s 2nd Congressional District, a position he retained until 1993.
During his first congressional term, Espy played a critical role in creating the Lower Mississippi Delta Commission, which spent two years on antipoverty efforts in Mississippi and the surrounding region. Espy then formed and chaired the seven-state Lower Mississippi Delta Congressional Caucus and served on a variety of committees and subcommittees, including Agriculture, Conservation, and Community and Natural Resources as well as the Domestic Task Force. Mississippi’s catfish industry constituted one of Espy’s pet projects while in Congress. He persuaded the army to purchase catfish and wielded his influence to secure block grants for two processing plants for his district.
Espy’s progressive and innovative ideas caught the attention of Pres. Bill Clinton, who in 1993 appointed the Magnolia State congressman to serve as secretary of agriculture, a position he held until 1994.
But scandal in the Department of Agriculture destroyed Espy’s political career. In August 1997 a federal grand jury indicted him on thirty counts of illegally accepting gifts from large food producers in exchange for political influence. Espy pled not guilty to all charges and told reporters on 10 September 1997, “I know I will prevail.” He was right. On 3 December 1998 the US District Court acquitted Espy on all charges after jurors found that, although Espy had received gifts, he had not provided favors in return.
In 1999 Espy returned to Washington to serve as a senior adviser to the Department of Energy on a no-pay, part-time basis. He remains involved in Washington politics and is still one of Mississippi’s most influential and dynamic politicians, having established consulting and legal firms. He also frequently appears as guest commentator on national news programs and in magazines. In 2018 he announced he is running for the US Senate seat long held by Thad Cochran.
- Michael Baron and Grant Ujifusa, The Almanac of American Politics, 1988 (1988)
- Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–1989 Bicentennial Edition (1989)
- Phil Duncan, ed. Congressional Quarterly’s Politics in America 1992: The 102nd Congress (1992)
- Mike Espy Collection, Congressional and Political Research Center, University Libraries, Mississippi State University
- Mike Espy PLLC website, www.mikespy.com