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Historic Firsts for Agriculture's Mike Espy : Cabinet: Black Southerner is noted for expertise in nutrition and rural development. He now must learn about trade negotiations, Russian loans.


WASHINGTON — Mike Espy, President-elect Bill Clinton's choice to be the new agriculture secretary, began making history the moment that his name was announced.

The 39-year-old Mississippi congressman is the first black to be named to the job and the first Southerner in a post that traditionally has gone to someone from a Midwestern state.

Unlike most predecessors, Espy is not a well-known agribusiness executive or a specialist in large-volume crops such as corn or wheat. Most of Espy's expertise is in nutrition and rural development programs.

As a result, while Espy's nomination offers Clinton some big political pluses, there are questions about whether his experience matches the department's needs.

The biggest issues on the new secretary's agenda will involve trade negotiations, the ennvironment, Russia's default on agricultural loans and congressional demands to slash the department's bloated bureaucracy, agricultural experts say.

Carol Brookins, an agriculture consultant, suggests that while Espy's expertise may help him expand the U.S. Department of Agriculture's role in rural development and nutrition programs, he will have to be a quick study to take the lead on other subjects.

"The agricultural agenda this time is going to be heavily directed from outside the Department of Agriculture," Brookins said. Espy, she added, "is not known for strong involvement" in more traditional agricultural issues.

Even so, Espy's supporters and key Clinton advisers insist that the new secretary-designate's strengths far outweigh any weaknesses.

Espy, they note, has spent six years as a member of the House Agriculture Committee, where he became familiar with most of USDA's major farm-subsidy programs. And he has served on the House budget panel as well.

He has proved himself effective as a politician, garnering 78% of the vote last November in a rural Mississippi Delta district where only 58% of the voting-age population is black.

Perhaps most important, he is a close friend and political ally of Clinton. The two have worked together on rural development issues, and Espy was an early backer of Clinton in this year's presidential campaign.

And given Clinton's immediate focus on the domestic non-farm economy and his need to pay close attention to such world hot spots as Bosnia and Somalia, Espy probably will have time to become more familiar with a range of agriculture issues.

"In general, I don't see agriculture as confronting the new Administration with front-burner issues," said Martin Abel, an Alexandria, Va.-based agriculture expert.

Espy is frequently cited as a prototype of the new generation of black politicians--well-educated, upper-middle-class, politically mainstream and savvy enough to be able to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters.

Political analysts say his focus on nutrition and economic development is intended to align him with issues that transcend class and party divisions, securing his reelection in the process.

Espy also has been viewed as a bit of a maverick because he has departed from traditional Democratic stands when he thinks it will help him please constituents--a policy that often has put him at odds with other Democrats and black leaders.

For example, Espy has vigorously opposed gun-control legislation in the House, supported the death penalty for some crimes and backed prayer in public schools--all sure vote-getters in his district.

"He has been a unifying force rather than a dividing force," said Dick Molpus, Mississippi's secretary of state and one of the two white state officials who publicly endorsed Espy during his first congressional race.

Despite Espy's independent streak, he has consistently won support from congressional and party leaders, who have helped to advance his career and to secure his political position in Congress.

He was given a spot in the limelight at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, where he introduced the keynote speaker. His only big disappointment came when he failed to get a seat on the House Appropriations Committee.

Espy's style is bold and often self-promoting, a trait that almost derailed his appointment by Clinton.

During a recent dinner here, the Mississippi lawmaker had scribbled 10 arguments for his appointment on an envelope and passed it to Clinton. When Clinton gave him a thumbs-up sign, Espy told reporters he would be tapped.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Clinton's transition team was livid, and as late as Wednesday evening the reports coming out of Little Rock were citing three or four "leading contenders" for the job.

In the end, however, Espy became the fourth black chosen for Clinton's cabinet.

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