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In deepest of Deep South, black lawmaker wins many whites

The line between black and white, for Rep. Mike Espy of the Mississippi Delta, has proven a tightrope. In one of the poorest congressional districts in the country, slightly more than half black, race divides people cleanly on most questions of life and politics.

Two years ago, the young, bookish Mr. Espy made history in becoming the first black that Mississippi sent to Congress since Reconstruction.

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Since then, he has walked his tightrope surefootedly enough that the color barrier in this Deep South district appears to be washing out like a broken levee.

Congressman Espy, now in his first reelection campaign, has become a leading exhibit in what boosters here tout as the ``new Mississippi'' of progressive young political leaders. If Harvard-educated Gov. Ray Mabus is the most prominent of them, Espy is the one showing victory over the racial past.

His camp claims that a recent poll gives him triple the estimated 12 percent of the white vote he won in 1986. Some of his major donors, in fact, are large white farmers - still sometimes called planters - who gave money to his white Republican opponent last time around.

Espy's opponent will win a majority of the Delta's white vote. Yet it was considered a breakthrough in 1986 that white voters accepted him enough that many stayed home, not bothering to vote against him.

Espy's strategy has been to pay close attention to the pocketbook concerns of the white farmers, who are extremely attentive voters. He sits on the Agriculture and Budget Committees in the House of Representatives.

As long as he attends to the interests of cotton, catfish, and soybeans, he can vote with the liberals in his party and serve the undereducated and impoverished in his district - the poorest in the poorest state - quietly.

Espy was a House sponsor of the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Act, just signed into law this month, which creates a commission to coordinate programs and progress in a seven-state area. It is modeled after the Appalachian Regional Commission of 1966.

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Yet as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention this summer, Espy did not publicly support Jesse Jackson - who won the Mississippi primary - except by voting with his delegation on the first ballot.

Many of the white votes Espy needs, and the dollars he has needed to mount a campaign, are from conservative farmers who will certainly vote Republican in the presidential race and probably in the US Senate race, too. Espy does not flaunt symbols of black political aspirations - like the Rev. Mr. Jackson - at them.

Farmers like John Dillard of Hallandale, who supported Espy's opponent in 1986, are behind Espy now. Mr. Dillard, immediate past president of the powerful Delta Council, notes Espy's diligent work on the 1985 bill setting farm policy for five years. He notes also: ``He's been very helpful to the catfish industry in promoting our product.''

Espy's approach has its skeptics, of course. ``I think he's dangerous,'' says one. ``I think he talks out of one side of his mouth to white people and one side of his mouth to black people.''

Espy's Republican opponent is Jack Coleman, a former Reagan appointee to the Commerce Department. He believes that blacks have been migrating out of the Delta, leaving a roughly 50-50 racial balance. This, along with the popularity of George Bush and Republican Senate candidate Trent Lott, gives him a shot.

``Some people feel like Mike Espy can get more money for us because he's a black Democrat,'' Mr. Coleman says. But Espy is also very liberal and anti-business, he says. ``We've got to be aggressively pro-business.''

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