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Espy Appointment Would Be a Break From Tradition : Cabinet: Agriculture front-runner from Mississippi scribbled his resume for Clinton on the back of an envelope.

TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

Sitting on a wooden milk crate behind Washington’s cavernous Union Station, Rep. Mike Espy scribbled on an envelope 10 reasons why President-elect Bill Clinton should nominate him agriculture secretary.

It seemed like a brash move for a 39-year-old congressman, the first black elected to the House of Representatives from Mississippi in more than 100 years. But when Clinton arrived at Union Station for a dinner they were attending Tuesday and read Espy’s note, he smiled and signaled thumbs-up, giving a strong indication that the congressman will get the agriculture post.

An early Clinton supporter, Espy has been a political ally of the Arkansas governor and has worked closely with him on rural development issues since first being elected to Congress in 1986. Last month he was reelected to a fourth term with 78% of the vote in the Mississippi Delta’s heavily agricultural 2nd District, just south of Memphis near the Tennessee border, where 58% of the voting-age population is black.

Espy wrote out the reasons he believes Clinton should appoint him while awaiting the arrival of the President-elect and his top aides for a Democratic Leadership Conference dinner. Espy had been on a transition team’s list of potential candidates for the agriculture job, but had himself not talked to Clinton about it.

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In an interview, Espy said he first gave the list of reasons to Warren Christopher, director of the Clinton transition, and then mentioned it to the President-elect, expecting him to review it some time after the dinner. But Clinton asked to read it on the spot, then gave him the thumbs-up signal.

Among other things, the scholarly young lawyer wrote that he shared with Clinton “a passion for rural development” and that he had six years service on the House Agriculture Committee, including four years as vice chairman of the subcommittee on cotton, rice and sugar.

He also noted that his appointment would be “non-traditional,” making him the first black agriculture secretary, as well as the first from the Deep South. Traditionally, agriculture secretaries have come from the Midwest Farm Belt.

Espy decided to seek the Agriculture post and abandon a promising congressional career after failing to gain membership on the Appropriations Committee. His spot on the House Budget Committee was expiring and he was frustrated at not being able to win another prestigious committee assignment despite three terms in Congress.

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He felt he could have won a seat on the Appropriations Committee if his fellow Democrat and Mississippian--Rep. Jamie L. Whitten--had supported him. But Whitten, who suffered a stroke in February and recently was stripped of the committee chairmanship because of physical and mental impairment, failed to even recognize Espy when he sought the 82-year-old congressman’s support.

In fact, Whitten asked Espy to send him a resume, as though the congressman with whom he had served for six years was applying for a job.

Espy then showed Whitten clippings of news stories that showed him defending Whitten when the aging congressman was under attack in his own successful reelection campaign. Whitten apparently had never been shown the articles--or did not remember them.

The Democrats’ decision to strip Whitten of his chairmanship after 51 years in Congress, reported veteran Mississippi political columnist Bill Minor, was an “unavoidable act of political euthanasia.” Minor wrote that Whitten “long ago earned his place as an effective representative of Mississippi, but it’s time for him to step down and come home.”

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In an interview, Espy said his experience with Whitten convinced him to seek greener pastures. To remain in the House, he said, would mean remaining as an Agriculture Committee member without enough seniority to get a subcommittee chairmanship.

Soon after coming to Congress, Espy and Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) wrote legislation creating the Lower Mississippi Delta Commission, which studies poverty in 219 counties in Mississippi, Arkansas and seven other states. Clinton was chairman of the commission, and he and Espy developed a close working relationship.

During the presidential election campaign, Espy worked tirelessly for Clinton. When Clinton came under attack from civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and other blacks for criticizing Sister Souljah’s comments about rioters in Los Angeles, Espy defended Clinton and said he was right to take issue with her remarks.

Clinton had criticized Sister Souljah at a meeting of Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, saying she had made a mistake in comments tending to rationalize violence by the rioters as revenge for racial injustices.

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Jackson subsequently accused Clinton of trying to provoke him and “embarrass us.” But Espy, in an appearance on the NBC “Today” show, defended Clinton as a leader in race relations who could bring people together.

Espy, a native of Yazoo City, formerly served as assistant secretary of state and as assistant attorney general in Mississippi, both appointive posts.

He recently told members of his staff that his late father would be especially proud of him if he were named agriculture secretary. His father served in the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Extension Service in Pine Bluff, Ark.


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