Starting her second year as a Mississippi state senator, Cindy Hyde-Smith arrived at the State Capitol in Jackson in 2001 to file one of her earliest pieces of legislation. Senate Bill 2604, as she proposed it, would have renamed a stretch of highway to the title it had in the 1930s: Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway.
While the president of the Confederacy did have ties to the state — representing it in the Senate before resigning when Mississippi left the Union — he had no known ties to her district.
The bill died in committee.
It is one of several instances in which the now-U.S. senator would embrace a pride in the Confederacy and its aftermath that is coming under new scrutiny in the wake of her comments that she would sit with a supporter in the front row of a “public hanging” — remarks that she defended as an exaggerated gesture of friendship and that others said alluded to lynching.
In 2014, she donned a Confederate hat and posed with a rifle, writing on her Facebook page that the Jefferson Davis homestead in Biloxi is a “must see.”
“Mississippi history at its best!” she wrote.
In 2016, she awarded a Confederate heritage group called Dixie Alliance the prize for best community float in a parade that she oversaw as commissioner of agriculture.
The U.S. Senate runoff on Tuesday between Hyde-Smith, the appointed Republican incumbent, and Democratic former congressman Mike Espy, who is seeking to become the first African American senator from the state since just after the Civil War, has exploded beyond the boundaries of ideology and politics.
The election has turned into a contest pitting the Old South — marked by pride in the Confederacy and resistance to tearing down monuments commemorating the Civil War — against the New South, which has sought greater racial harmony, toppled past Confederate icons and taken pride in the surprisingly strong races run this year by several black candidates in the region, even as their contests were marred by racial epithets.
To her opponents, as well as some lifelong Republicans, Hyde-Smith’s remarks about a public hanging have rekindled images of the state that most want to leave behind. She was also caught on video saying she would be fine with suppressing votes of college students, a comment that her campaign said was meant to be a joke.
Espy said in a debate Tuesday that she gave Mississippi a “black eye” and “rejuvenated old stereotypes” about the state.
“We can’t afford a senator who embarrasses us and reinforces the stereotypes we’ve worked so hard to overcome,” one of his recent ads says. “We’re better than this, Mississippi, and that’s no joke.”
In the aftermath of the comments, Hyde-Smith has virtually disappeared from the campaign trail, rarely holding public events and avoiding the press completely. After Tuesday’s debate, Espy came to address reporters while Hyde-Smith left the site in Jackson — sending Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) to make remarks instead.
Her campaign declined requests for an interview or comment.
Hyde-Smith has spent decades in Mississippi politics, breaking barriers as the first woman elected to the state Senate from her district and as the first female agriculture commissioner. Throughout her political career — including in her current effort to become the first elected female U.S. senator from Mississippi — she has tried to hone an image as a fierce fighter with a twang.
“You know, the thing that they say about me is, ‘She is half Southern belle and half street fighter,’ ” she said during a recent campaign speech.
She catapulted onto the national scene when Gov. Phil Bryant (R) appointed her this past spring to the seat long held by Sen. Thad Cochran (R), who resigned because of illness. (The runoff was required when no candidate captured more than 50 percent of the vote Nov. 6.)
Hyde-Smith grew up in the southern part of Mississippi, in an area where some of the darkest chapters of racism played out. Several years before she was born, a black man who had been trying to get voters to cast absentee ballots in a special election was shot to death at 10 a.m. in front of the county courthouse in Brookhaven, about 20 miles north of where Hyde-Smith grew up and where she and her husband now live. No one was convicted of the killing.
“It’s always been known as a Klan hotbed,” filmmaker Keith Beauchamp said of the area. His documentary on the murder of Emmett Till, lynched at age 14 in Money, Miss., led to the reopening of that case. “They were known for their lynchings,” he said. “They were known for Klan meetings. This is where your Dixiecrat hatred comes from.”
Beauchamp said he found Hyde-Smith’s recent comments “scary.”
“She’s using the same tactics that they used back in the day for intimidation. The code wording, all these things, to get the election,” he said. “The attempts being made, the things being said — they’re pushing for a resurgence of the Southern white stronghold that they had in the 1950s.”
Others who know Hyde-Smith disagree. She grew up in Monticello, the daughter of a hairdresser and a truck driver. She met her future husband, Michael Smith, when a customer in her mom’s beauty shop set them up on a blind date.
Hyde-Smith has called herself a “major tomboy” who grew up riding horses and dirt bikes. Her dad taught her to drive a tractor when she was 7, and she has recalled riding her purple motorcycle every day, starting in ninth grade, to work as a cashier at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store.
In Hyde-Smith’s small town, the schools were being integrated a few years before she entered high school. Those who grew up with her describe a relatively tightknit community. And while they strongly defend her recent comments, they also say that offering to sit in the front row of a public hanging with someone is not a local colloquialism.
“There was some tension, but there was never any killings or anybody getting in fights. It all went fairly smooth,” said Zona Ward Tirello, a longtime family friend. “I don’t think there’s a racist bone in Cindy Hyde-Smith’s body. She would help anybody with anything for any reason.”
She was named the town’s “Miss Hospitality” and went to a local community college before graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi, obtaining degrees in criminal justice and political science.
She worked in Mississippi for the American Cancer Society and was a lobbyist in Washington for the National Coalition on Health Care and the Southern Coalition for Safer Highways.
She and her husband settled in Brookhaven, where for decades his family had run a cattle farm and livestock auction.
“At 39 years old, I knew I wanted a child,” she told the Mississippi-based news site HottyToddy.com in 2015. “My husband and I decided that I would quit my job, have a baby and run for the state Senate. We did all of that in one year.”
She became the first female senator to represent her district, defeating longtime incumbent W.L. Rayborn.
After she won, Rayborn said, he called her to offer congratulations. But in the years since, he said, she refused to give him any formal introduction when he visited the statehouse, and the feelings remain raw.
“Cindy ain’t got no personality. If you talk to her you know that,” he said. “She’s not smart enough to be in Washington, D.C.”
But her reputation among her colleagues in the legislature was as someone who was hard-working and willing to cut deals.
“When I served with her in the legislature, she was ladylike and very approachable,” said George Flaggs, a Democrat who is black and is now the mayor of Vicksburg. “She was a great person to work with. She was real compassionate and considerate.”
She was also known for impassioned speeches and sometimes biting rhetoric, once urging her colleagues to override a veto from then-Gov. Haley Barbour (R) on a bill that would protect personal property rights — or risk the ire of voters.
“You need to get you a pair of asbestos underwear,” Hyde-Smith said in 2009. “You’re going to need it because somebody is going to light up your rear end.”
The legislation she filed in 2001 to rename the highway after Jefferson Davis was one of only seven bills of which she was the chief sponsor that year, and it stood out in a review of her legislative filings during her time in office. Most of her legislation was related to agriculture, or standard filings to designate May as Osteoporosis Month, to attempt to make Good Friday a state holiday or honor the first Mississippian to be among the top 13 contestants on “American Idol.”
She also did not appear to be outspoken on the racially divisive issue of whether Mississippi should replace the Confederate emblem on the state flag. The state’s voters considered a referendum on the topic in 2001 and stuck with the flag by nearly a 2-to-1 margin.
She has weighed in on the topic more recently, saying that state residents decided the issue in 2001 and that more research should be done before any action is taken.
That puts her at odds with Wicker and Cochran, both of whom called for its removal in 2015, as well as Espy, who has said the flag is “outdated, divisive and evokes negative thoughts of a bygone era.”
For about 12 years she served as a Democrat before switching parties and running statewide for agriculture commissioner as a Republican. She won that race, again making history, and left only when named to the U.S. Senate.
“She has impeccable integrity,” said Sidney Tate, who as Hyde-Smith’s hairstylist has seen her a few hours each month for the past 15 years. “She will help anyone of any social status, of any race, of any skin color. She doesn’t care. She’ll help anybody.”
“I watched her the other day in here write a recommendation for another person’s son to get a job,” she added. “If someone needs a bed in the nursing home, she’ll make a call. She will help in any way she can.”
Tate said she has never heard anything racially insensitive come out of Hyde-Smith’s mouth.
“I think it’s taken way out of context,” she said. “She’s one of the greatest people I’ve ever known.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.