A day after footage emerged of U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) making laughing comments about going to a “public hanging,” her black Democratic opponent, Mike Espy, responded Monday, calling the statement “awful” and “tone-deaf.”
In a video of a Tupelo, Mississippi, campaign stop released Sunday, Hyde-Smith said she’d attend even a “public hanging” if invited by the cattle rancher with whom she met that day.
“I’d be on the front row,” she said, laughing. The video quickly went viral.
Hyde-Smith faces a runoff election against Espy on Nov. 27.
In a Monday morning appearance on CNN’s New Day, Espy told co-host John Berman that Hyde-Smith made the comments “a campaign issue” by telling the “joke” in the first place.
“This is 2018,” he continued. “We just should not have this. We need leaders who would try to unite us and not divide us.”
The comments, Espy added, “are hurtful to the millions of Mississippians who are people of good will, and they are harmful because they tend to reinforce the stereotypes that have held back our state for so long, that have cost us jobs and that have held back the economy.”
NAACP President Derrick Johnson released a statement Sunday noting that Hyde-Smith’s “joke” was just another example of the “hateful and racist rhetoric” normalized by the political climate created by President Trump.
“Hyde-Smith’s decision to joke about ‘hanging,’ in a state known for its violent and terroristic history toward African-Americans is sick,” said Johnson.
“To envision this brutal and degenerate type of frame during a time when black people, Jewish people, and immigrants are still being targeted for violence by white nationalists and racists is hateful and hurtful. Any politician seeking to serve as the national voice of the people of Mississippi should know better. Her choice of words serves as an indictment of not only her lack of judgment, but her lack of empathy, and most of all lack of character.”
Hyde-Smith defended herself in a Sunday night statement, writing, “I used an exaggerated expression of regard, and any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous.”
But Espy disagrees.
“Look, all I know is we need leaders now here in 2018 that will bring us together,” he told Berman on Monday. “My campaign is a campaign that will try to reach across the racial chasm, reach across the party chasm, and bring us together.”
“We need to move forward as a state,” Espy added. “I’m the leader that will do that.”