With Mississippi state Rep. Chuck Espy (D) inching closer to launching a primary campaign against Rep. Bennie Thompson next year, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sought recently to avert what looks likely to be an all-out brawl in the Delta district.
But Pelosi’s actions, which came at the urging of Thompson, appear to be doing little to dissuade the state legislator from making the race and have outraged his allies.
Thompson’s concerns about facing Espy, the nephew of former Rep. Mike Espy (D-Miss.), were laid out in a one-page internal memo drafted for Pelosi on the eve of a meeting last month between the Leader and the Congressman.
The memo — a copy of which was obtained by Roll Call — also detailed how the Democratic leader could help to undercut Espy’s nascent campaign and suggested that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had already acted to serve warning to the political consultants working for Espy.
Among the actions suggested in the memo was a request that Pelosi reach out to former Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.) to enlist his help in dissuading Mike Espy from supporting his nephew. Coelho was considered Espy’s mentor in Washington and the two remain close friends.
“Ask him to push Mike to stop this race,” the memo states. The author of the memo, a Pelosi staffer whose name was redacted in the copy obtained by Roll Call, however, expressed reservations about the Democratic Leader doing anything overt to suggest that Thompson is frightened about his prospects.
Coelho, reached Monday, confirmed that he had received a call from Pelosi regarding the 2nd district primary but declined further comment.
In an interview Friday, Mike Espy said Pelosi’s effort had essentially boomeranged and given him more incentive, not less, to work to elect his nephew.
“I’ve seen the memo. I’ve read the memo and I’m disappointed in the memo,” Espy said. “I did get a call from Tony Coelho, who was disturbed from the call he got from Nancy Pelosi and I think that call to him had the opposite effect. I think it’s just going to encourage us to reach out to the Washington establishment and good friends like Tony Coelho.”
While it is not out of the ordinary for the DCCC and Democratic leaders to discourage primary challenges to incumbents, many would consider tactics such as enlisting the help of former Members and threatening to blackball Democratic consultants extraordinary lengths.
Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider did not dispute the memo’s authenticity and said only: “The Democratic Caucus does support its incumbents.”
The memo also details efforts by the DCCC to punish Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm Strother-Duffy-Strother for its work on Espy’s behalf.
The firm has been working for Espy since roughly the beginning of this year and has done work directly for the DCCC in previous election cycles, as well as for numerous individual Democratic candidates.
According to the memo, Thompson has met with DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and Executive Director John Lapp and apprised them of his concerns about the race.
“Following this meeting Lapp called Jim Duffy and told him the DCCC would not provide any contracts to a firm seeking to unseat an incumbent,” the memo states. “Duffy indicated this was fine. The political desks at the DCCC have been told that candidates in other states should not hire this firm.”
Duffy confirmed Tuesday that he had been contacted by Lapp about his work on Espy’s race.
“When he called me and told me that’s how the cow ate the cabbage,” Duffy recalled, he told Lapp to “do what you got to do.”
Lanier Avant, Thompson’s top aide, acknowledged that his boss had reached out to Pelosi for help in his re-election campaign but characterized that effort as nothing out of the ordinary, citing Pelosi visit to Thompson’s district in February 2004.
He said Thompson plans to treat next year’s race no differently than past re-election contests.
“We take every opponent absolutely seriously,” he said. “And whoever we face in the September primary next year will be no exception.”
Asked whether it was normal practice to ask the Leader to enlist the help of a former Member in intervening in the primary, Avant responded: “We find it helpful to send a signal early and often. And so that’s been what we’ve done.”
Thompson, who had $283,000 in the bank as of March 31, has won his last two general elections with 58 percent (2004) and 55 percent (2002) against the same underfunded Republican opponent. The memo to Pelosi notes his “lower than expected support” in those races as another reason he will need assistance in 2006.
In an interview Monday, Chuck Espy cautioned that his candidacy is not yet official, but didn’t waste an opportunity to bemoan what he described as the current lack of “strong” and “balanced” Democratic leadership in the 2nd district.
Espy, who said that he had been told about the memo and its details, is in the process of registering a campaign committee with the Federal Election Commission and filing other candidate forms with the Internal Revenue Service.
“I think through an honest Democratic primary you should allow the two Democrats to battle it out and allow honest competition to allow the stronger Democrat to step forward,” Espy said.
“It’s just disturbing to see that you would do these actions against two strong Democrats. Bennie’s a Democrat and I’m a Democrat. My whole family has been a part of the Democratic leadership of Mississippi forever, or a long time.”
Espy, 30, will travel to Washington in the next month, to meet with Members on the Hill, lobbyists and others who have expressed an interest in his campaign.
One of Thompson’s requests laid out in the memo to Pelosi is that she help discourage firms and organizations from meeting with Espy when he’s in town.
Thompson’s third request of Pelosi detailed in the memo is tied to financial assistance and another visit to his district. The author of the memo, however, advises Pelosi not to agree to another visit unless Thompson comes through with his fundraising commitments, “though they were negligible at 60K. Bennie can make this much happen.”
Mike Espy questioned the desire to send Pelosi, a liberal Democrat from San Francisco, to the district in light of the state’s socially conservative voting trends. He also said that at a time when House Democrats face a 29-seat deficit, the leadership should target their efforts to increase the Caucus instead of devoting resources to defending a Democratic incumbent in a non-competitive seat.
“When she should be focused on increasing the numbers of Democrats in the Congress, it looks like she’s focused her efforts on keeping incumbents in safe seats,” Espy said. “Because whether the incumbent wins or whether Chuck Espy wins, that’s a Democratic seat.”
The 2nd district is an expansive seat that runs almost the entire length of the Mississippi River Delta, taking in the city of Jackson and other central counties as well.
Among Thompson’s concerns laid out in the memo, are geographic and racial divisions in the majority-black district.
Thompson is from the Jackson area, while Espy’s base is in the Delta region — an area heavily populated by farmers and Republicans.
“Many, black and white, across the Delta have been talking about the need for a ‘Deltan to represent the Delta’ in recent years,” according to the memo.
Thompson’s decision to move off of the Agriculture Committee (where he was fifth in Democratic seniority at the beginning of the 108th Congress) in order to become the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security panel, could also further hinder his ability to reach out to Delta-area farmers.
The memo also details Thompson’s apprehension about the race based on recent primaries involving CBC members which resulted in heated, bitter contests.
In 2002, then-Reps. Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.) and Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) were defeated in nasty primaries by black opponents. McKinney won her seat back in 2004.
“He has seen Mr. Hilliard and Ms. McKinney, in previous campaigns (some for various reasons) come under successful attack from ‘younger’ leaders,” the memo states. “This seems to be a trend in Southern, traditional African American districts: the old leadership is out of touch and its time for a change.”
Last cycle, the Democratic primary in Texas’ 9th district grew into another slugfest with racial overtones as former Houston Justice of the Peace Al Green (D) defeated then-Rep. Chris Bell (D). Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Thompson, publicly threw their support to Green, who is black. That angered some in the Democratic Caucus, given that the party had stood by incumbents McKinney and Hilliard in their primary races.
Chuck Espy was elected to the state Legislature in 2000 and has been mentioned as a challenger to Thompson for the past two cycles. Espy is the son of Clarksdale Mayor Henry Espy, Mike Espy’s brother. Another Espy brother, Tom Espy, is a businessman and political strategist in Jackson.
If elected, Chuck Espy would be the same age as his uncle when he first won his seat in Congress in 1986. Thompson succeed Mike Espy in Congress when Espy was named Agriculture Secretary by President Clinton in 1993. He defeated Henry Espy in a special election primary.
Mike Espy said he had advised his nephew not to run against Thompson in the two previous cycles but that’s all changed in 2006.
“Now, I can see him in that seat. I can see him and I’m going to help my nephew,” Espy said. “This is my brother’s son. … I was going to help anyway, but now I’m really going to help. Because they’re calling my personal friends and people who have no need to be called.”