by Alan Lange
Editor – MississippiPolitics.com

All eyes are on the 2nd congressional district in Mississippi in what is shaping up to be an epic political battle that will be waged over the coming weeks. Incumbent Bennie Thompson, after getting a scare from an unknown Clinton B. LeSueur in 2002, is trying to win his eight term in Congress. However, he faces stiff competition from young upstart State Representative Chuck Espy on the Democratic side, and a more-credible-by-the-day challenge from Tchula Mayor Yvonne Brown on the Republican side of the ledger.

With the spectre of LeSueur and Jackson’s recent mayoral race looming in his rear-view, Thompson is obviously concerned about the fall. He is now mastering the time honored tradition of bringing home the bacon before a congressional election. But the real issue is Espy.

Espy will be well-funded. His uncle, former Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, will make sure of that (especially after the “blackball” spat he had with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi early in 2005). Espy has name ID almost equal to that of Thompson in his own district by virtue of his own success and his family’s pedigree in Mississippi politics. Espy is running as a Democrat, but he will undoubtedly have “cross-over” support from people gunning to remove Thompson in the primary, particularly if there is only token opposition to a strong candidate in Yvonne Brown on the Republican side.

Knowing that this suit targets his efforts specifically, Espy has taken to the high road. “You have the right to vote whenever and wherever you want to. Your vote is sacred, your vote was earned with blood and tears. Use it any way you want,” Espy said in a prepared statement.

The dynamics of this race are almost identical to that of Jackson’s recent mayoral race of 2005, with the exception that Brown is an actual threat on the Republican side as well. Don’t think for a minute that is lost on Thompson.

In February, Cleveland attorney and Democratic Party operative Ellis Turnage filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of the Mississippi Democratic Party to in essence close their primaries effective immediately to prevent “cross-over” voting. In essence, the lawsuit states that Mississippi’s primary system is unconstitutional because it prevents individual parties from associating with whomever they choose. In preparation for this story, we contacted Mr. Turnage who referred all of our questions about the lawsuit to the complaint filed in federal court . . . so we went and got it.

A copy of the complaint shows the playbook for the argument. Additional information can be found in the motion for preliminary injunction. At the very end of a memorandum supporting that motion, the intent of the effort becomes crystal clear . . . intervene with an injunction before the Democratic primary on June 6, 2006.

The “freedom of association” languaging found throughout all of the documents harkens back to white supremacist language found in lawsuits over forty years ago. And it seems as if that level of exclusion is the power the party seeks. But Sam Hall with the Democratic Party contends, “The purpose of this lawsuit is not to restrict voters from participating in the Democratic Party primary but to ensure the integrity of our primary system and defend it from encroachment by Republicans. We welcome all Democrats, Independents and reformed Republicans who feel their party is failing them to vote in our primaries.”

In an interview with Tchula Mayor Yvonne Brown, she brought up several headlines that many Mississippians would rather forget. “On July 2, 1947, the Jackson Daily News headline read ‘Don’t try it – Do not participate in the Democratic primaries any where in Mississippi’,” as Brown vividly recalled the languaging against blacks voting in the Democratic primary in the 1940s. “In my opinion, there is no difference in the statements made in 1947 to what is being asked in 2006 by the Democratic Party lawsuit. It’s about denying people the right to vote as they choose?The Democratic ideology remains the same.”

Much has also been made of the “loyalty oath” – the assumed mechanism of enforcement for excluding voters in the primary. In other states that have tried this, such as South Carolina, the party attempted to make primary voters take a “loyalty oath” saying “I consider myself to be a Democrat”. However, that didn’t go over too well after John Kerry tried to hold the line in 2004. Civil rights organizations went beserk and rightfully so. Can you say “poll tax”?

The organizations that would normally be upset by something like this (NAACP, SCLC, ACLU) have been whisper-quiet on this issue. It will be interesting to see if they ever emerge on one side or the other as the lawsuit progresses.

Dowdy and Company are obviously on the ropes, and this is definitely the last stand. It’s curious that the primary system that worked so well for them for decades is magically and instantly unconstitutional just weeks before a hotly contested election. Should the suit be unsuccessful and Thompson gets toppled in the primary in June, look for more party defections with a nervous slate of vulnerable statewide Democratic candidates (Hood, Clark & Dale) into 2007.