Cindy Hyde-Smith, the winner in Tuesday’s special U.S. Senate election in Mississippi, was rightfully called out for her racially charged comments during the campaign. But her history of homophobia deserves scrutiny as well.
In 2012, when Hyde-Smith was Mississippi’s agriculture commissioner, a female couple wanted to hold their commitment ceremony at the Masonic Hall at the state-owned Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum in Jackson. Museum director Charlie Dixon turned them down on the basis that the property was open only to events that were legal under state law, which at the time didn’t recognize same-sex marriages. The facility often hosted opposite-sex weddings.
The Southern Poverty Law Center intervened on behalf of the couple, Ceara Sturgis and Emily Key. The SPLC pointed out that while commitment ceremonies had no legal recognition, there was no law against holding them. Attorney General Jim Hood had to agree, and he said Sturgis and Key’s application to hold their ceremony there should be processed.
Hyde-Smith, who as agriculture commissioner was Dixon’s ultimate boss, said the museum had to comply with Hood’s order, but she made clear she wasn’t happy about it.
“Based on my personal and religious beliefs, I strongly object to this, but I have no alternative, due to this advice, but to allow the processing of this permit to move forward,” she said at the time. She added, “While this same-sex couple’s request for a permit to utilize one of our state’s facilities for a ‘commitment ceremony’ is not being defined as a marriage ceremony, it is personally troubling for me.” She urged state legislators to clarify the law so that same-sex couples could be turned away.
National marriage equality has now rendered that argument moot, although Mississippi has a strong religious objections law. Hyde-Smith, a Republican, didn’t make LGBTQ issues a centerpiece of her U.S. Senate campaign, but she did tout herself as “a rock-solid conservative” and emphasize her anti-abortion and pro-gun stances. Her Democratic opponent, Mike Espy, highlighted his support for equal rights “regardless of age, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.”
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith, a former state senator as well as agriculture commissioner, to the U.S. Senate seat that Republican Thad Cochran vacated in April due to health problems. This month’s special election determined who will serve the remaining two years of Cochran’s term. Four candidates ran for the seat in the November 6 election, with no one winning a majority of the vote, forcing Hyde-Smith and Espy, the top two finishers, into a runoff held Tuesday.
Espy, a former congressman who was secretary of agriculture under President Bill Clinton, would have been the first African-American U.S. senator from Mississippi since Reconstruction and the first Democrat the state sent to the chamber since 1982. But Hyde-Smith, who had strong support from Donald Trump, prevailed. The final tally was 54 percent to 46 percent.
The campaign was marked by Hyde-Smith’s comment that she would happily attend a public hanging if a certain supporter asked her to, a comment that many saw as a reference to the lynching of African-Americans. Espy called the remark “harmful.” Hyde-Smith delivered a lukewarm apology “for anyone that was offended” but insisted there was no racial connotation to her statement.
Hyde-Smith has a problematic history when it comes to racial issues. She attended a private high school founded by white Mississippians who wanted to avoid integrated public schools, and her daughter attended a similar school. As a state senator she pushed for legislation honoring Confederate soldiers and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. And she was photographed in 2014 wearing a Confederate army cap and surrounded by other Confederate artifacts at Davis’s Biloxi home, Beauvoir, now a museum. On Facebook the photo was captioned “Mississippi history at its best.”