By John Whitesides
(Reuters) – Republican U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi apologized on Tuesday for making a comment about public hangings, but accused her black Democratic opponent in a special election runoff of twisting her words for political gain.
The Senate runoff next Tuesday between Hyde-Smith, a white former state lawmaker who was appointed to the Senate seat in April, and Democrat Mike Espy, a former congressman and U.S. agriculture secretary, has been engulfed in controversy since video of the remark surfaced last week.
The video showed Hyde-Smith at a Nov. 2 public event praising a supporter by saying: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
The comment set off a furor in Mississippi, a state scarred by a history of racism and violence against blacks, including lynching. Until Tuesday, Hyde-Smith had refused to apologize or explain the remarks.
“For anyone that was offended by my comments, I certainly apologize,” Hyde-Smith said during a debate with Espy in Jackson, Mississippi.
“There was no ill will, no intent whatsoever in my statement,” she said. “This comment was twisted and it was turned into a weapon to use against me, a political weapon used for nothing but personal and political gain by my opponent.”
Amid the controversy, retailer Walmart Inc and other businesses have tried to back away from Hyde-Smith, demanding her campaign return their donations.
During the debate, the only scheduled encounter between the two candidates, Espy said her statement was “a black eye” for the state and had resurrected old stereotypes about Mississippi.
“No one twisted your comments because the comments came out of your mouth,” Espy told Hyde-Smith. “I don’t know what’s in your heart, but we all know what came out of your mouth.”
The runoff to serve the last two years of former Republican Senator Thad Cochran’s term was needed because neither Espy nor Hyde-Smith gained more than 50 percent of the vote in a Nov. 6 special election with four candidates.
The runoff will not affect the balance of power in Congress, as Republicans will hold a Senate majority even if Hyde-Smith loses, and Democrats will control the House of Representatives.
(Reporting by John Whitesides in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney)