When Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith won a special election last year to fill the remainder of the late Thad Cochran’s Senate seat, she became the first woman from the state of Mississippi to be elected to Congress.
Hyde-Smith has racked up a series of firsts. She was the first woman elected to the State Senate District 39, the first woman to chair the Agriculture Committee in the State Senate
Hyde-Smith has racked up a series of firsts. She was the first woman elected to the State Senate District 39, the first woman to chair the Agriculture Committee in the State Senate, and Mississippi’s first female Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce, an elected position and top political job in a state whose economy still relies heavily on farming. The 60-year-old Senator, who had to leave her senatorial appointment with Governor Phil Bryant to rush home to the family cattle ranch to capture an escaped cow, dismisses the notion that it is more difficult for a woman to be elected to public office in her famously red state.
“When I ran for Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture in 2011,” Hyde-Smith recalls, “we had a lot of chatter—‘Oh, my goodness, will Mississippi elect a commissioner of agriculture who’s a female?’ Some people felt it was a steep hill. But really, it was just a very enjoyable campaign, as far as meeting with the people. Once people know your credentials, once they meet you and they decide for themselves that you are qualified for that position, it really is not an issue.”
Still, she adds, “But I am really pleased, and I get a lot of satisfaction when younger women and little girls look at me and see that they can do these things. Gender has just never been a huge issue in any of my campaigns, but I can see where my election does open doors and give other women the comfort level that they need to maybe step out in a political race or any other adventures that they want to go in in life and their careers. So, it’s very nice to be the first female because I do see what it does for other people.”
If Senator Hyde-Smith believes that being a woman is no impediment to being elected to office in Mississippi, she also knows first-hand that being a conservative woman isn’t always that easy on the national stage. Her campaign to fill Cochran’s term grabbed national headlines. To say she was described in unflattering terms is something of an understatement.
If Senator Hyde-Smith believes that being a woman is no impediment to being elected to office in Mississippi, she also knows first-hand that being a conservative woman isn’t always that easy on the national stage. Her campaign to fill Cochran’s term grabbed national headlines. As viewed in the national media, the race became about Mississippi’s troubled past, not the state’s current economic needs.
Her opponent in the runoff was Mike Espy, who had served as Secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton administration. If elected, Espy, who was popular with Mississippi farmers, would have been the first African-American elected to the U.S. Senate from Mississippi since Reconstruction. For the national media, the theme of the campaign became Mississippi’s undeniably tragic racial history.
When Hyde-Smith joked that she admired supporter and cattle rancher Colin Hutchinson so much that “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row,” her political opponents and the media seized upon the remark. It was fabricated as somehow endorsing public hangings and by extension lynching, a word Hyde-Smith never used. News outlets such as CNN quoted NAACP statistics that between 1882 and 1968, there were 561 lynchings of black Americans in the state. This is a horrific, gut-wrenching figure. But Hyde-Smith was nine in 1968.
The race became about Mississippi’s troubled past, not the state’s current economic needs. When Hyde-Smith won, the New Yorker magazine proclaimed that the “real winner” was Mississippi’s “notably unsightly” history.
Hyde-Smith’s quip may have been ill-advised. But Hyde-Smith says that it was not rooted in Mississippi’s past. “Well, you know, we are ranchers and we watch Western movies every night,” she explains. “I was simply referring to a Western movie. But anything you say, the right person can take it, twist it, use it as a weapon against you, and that’s just unfortunately part of this business. So, you just expect those things. And the good thing is when you’ve got a track record, everybody looks at that track record. They look at your past and they know who you are. And, so, it’s just a part of this business but it is not the nice part.” Hyde-Smith won 53.9 percent of the vote.
She moved on from the heated election, determined to make use of her new job to improve things in her state.
Hyde-Smith had just come from lunch at the White House the day she spoke to IWF. The next day, she would be flying with President Trump on Air Force One to a rally in Tupelo, Mississippi, to support the Republican gubernatorial candidate, now Governor-elect Tate Reeves. The lunch was a smallish affair with nine or 10 senators. “President Trump invited several of us to come to the White House, really just to visit, and make sure that, if we have any questions for him, we have the opportunity to ask, to make sure that we have his ear,” she says. “And that’s a pretty good position to be in. He’s been very kind, very gracious, and I certainly appreciate the relationship that I have with the President.”
She is married to a cattle rancher. “The first date we ever had was to the Dixie National Rodeo in Mississippi,” she recalls. “And a mutual friend of my mom’s actually kept telling me about this cowboy from Brookhaven, and I didn’t think very much of it at all. I tell everybody, the two things he did that impressed me the most was that, first he tithed to the church, and second of all he could saddle his own horse. And those two things really impressed me; I knew I had quality.”
She is a woman who has the President’s ear but she is almost an accidental office holder. She is not someone who from an early age aspired to office. “Actually, running for office was not the goal in the beginning,” Hyde-Smith says. “In 1999 I ran for the state senate. I had never run for any public office. But I just wasn’t really happy with the way I was being represented, and so I took on a 20–year incumbent and was successful. So, holding office wasn’t a life-long dream, but I knew that I had the tenacity, the will, the fight, the go get ‘em to get things done. We were blessed. We won that first election against a 20-year incumbent and we have been successful in every election since then. It does take a lot of hard work, but I’m certainly not afraid of that.”
An interviewer once noted that “with typical small-town gentility,” Hyde-Smith generally refrains from criticizing the man she defeated. She doesn’t go into details about how he was failing to represent her.
During her first stint in office, she was the mother of a small child. “When I decided to run, I said to my husband that I was going to deliver in January, and that that would be great timing for a primary and going into a general election. And it was perfect. It really was. Because we are in Jackson only part-time. You are a full-time legislator, year-round, but as far as being in the capital, you’ve got a 90-day session and the rest of the time is pretty flexible. So, it worked great for us. My child, my little girl Anna-Michael Smith, was five weeks old when I qualified to run for the state senate.”
At first, however, she had worried. “You know, just the hardest thing I’ve ever prayed about was who would keep my child, if I won, when I was in session,” Hyde-Smith once told an interviewer. “I said, ‘Lord I’m going to need a sitter during the day, if I’m elected, but it’s in your hands and we’re just going to follow your lead.’” Hyde-Smith sometimes took the baby with her to the state Senate. She would place the baby carrier on the floor and rock it with her foot.
Senator Hyde-Smith was born Cindy Hyde, the daughter of Luther Hyde, who was in the trucking business, and Lorraine Hyde, a hairdresser, of Monticello, Miss., (latest available population figure: 1,571). Growing up, she worked in her father’s trucking company. “I have probably changed more oil filters than anyone at the Capitol!” she told the Mississippi Business Journal. While in school, she worked five years as a cashier for the local Piggly Wiggly grocery store. She graduated from Mississippi’s Copiah-Lincoln Community College and the University of Southern Mississippi. She is married to Michael Smith, a fifth-generation cattle rancher.
“The first date we ever had was to the Dixie National Rodeo in Mississippi,” she recalls. “And a mutual friend of my mom’s actually kept telling me about this cowboy from Brookhaven, and I didn’t think very much of it at all. I just thought, yeah. I was 37 before I ever married. And he was 39 and had never been married. So, you know, I had a really full life but when I met that cowboy from Brookhaven, I knew this is the right thing for me and it was just like God told me, ‘Okay, this is going to be okay. You’re going to have a great life together.’ I tell everybody, the two things he did that impressed me the most was that, first he tithed to the church, and second of all he could saddle his own horse. And those two things really impressed me; I knew I had quality.”
Hyde-Smith had just come from lunch at the White House the day she spoke to IWF. The next day, she would be flying with President Trump on Air Force One to a rally in Tupelo, Mississippi. The lunch was a smallish affair with nine or 10 senators. “President Trump invited several of us to come to the White House, really just to visit, and make sure that, if we have any questions for him, we have the opportunity to ask, to make sure that we have his ear,” she says. “And that’s a pretty good position to be in.”
The Senator and her husband raise beef and are partners in Lincoln County Livestock, the local stockyard auction market, which holds a cattle auction every Tuesday, as it has done since 1942. They live in Brookhaven, Mississippi, a small town around 60 miles from Jackson, with Anna-Michael, who attends Mississippi State University and has been active in 4-H, and the family rescue dog, Pence (yes, he’s named after the Vice President). Pence, it should be noted for the record, made valiant attempts to corral the errant cow on the day of Hyde-Smith was named Mississippi’s newest senator but ended up needing the senator’s assistance. A picture of the newly-minted senator, still in her finery and clutching the recaptured cow, was leaked to the Clarion-Ledger, the state’s capital newspaper.
“We sent Anna-Michael to a bull sale last week to buy bulls,” says the Senator. “We run a family business and it is something the whole family enjoys. Farming is full-time. Whatever needs to be done, you do it. But it’s something we enjoy. From getting the rye grass planted to watching it come up and making sure the cattle are fed, we enjoy it.”
Senator Hyde-Smith serves on the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, which has oversight on matters relating to farming and nutrition. “So many of the people in Washington, D.C., where there is a lot of concrete, and in larger cities, do not connect the dots when they hit that drive-through, when they ate lunch today. We ate chicken at the White House today. You know, that just doesn’t magically appear on your plate. There’s somebody out there raising these products that we enjoy. And most of us eat three times a day. We have the safest, most affordable food supply of anywhere in the world. We spend less than 10 percent of our income on that. I like being part of making people realize that, and not take it for granted. You know, I say, ‘First thank God and then thank a farmer.’”
The tariffs that President Trump has imposed in trying to negotiate a trade deal with China are creating hardships for some American farmers. Some American farmers feel they are being betrayed. “Not in Mississippi. I assure you,” counters the senator, emphatically. “This should have been done 30 years ago. We have finally gotten a president who will stand up and say, this is an unfair trade agreement. It is unfair. And the farmers in Mississippi are telling me, ‘Stay the course. Tell the president to stay the course.’ It will benefit us, no doubt, in the long run, and it’s already shaping into that.”
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Mississippi has the highest poverty rate in the U.S. The Senator says that President Trump’s policies are making a difference for her state. “Under this president’s leadership,” she says, “with the tax structure that has been changed, we have jobs in Mississippi. We have jobs looking for people. But you know that you don’t break the cycle of poverty overnight.”
What advice would she give to a young woman considering a career in politics? “Oh, it would be encouragement,” she replies, “but realistic encouragement—be realistic because the brutality is real. And to be able to be of any assistance and offer encouragement to the person who makes that decision, you have to tell them it’s not for the faint of heart. But even if it’s not all good, it’s certainly isn’t all bad—there are so many rewards.”
She sees workforce training as the keys to improving life for more Mississippians. “You don’t have to have a college degree to make a very livable wage in Mississippi,” she says. “I like the workforce training development, the community colleges that are offering programs for those who choose to do that, and I want to see that stigma removed. I really admire and commend anyone who wants to cross that stage and get that college diploma. That is really an accomplishment. But I also admire someone who can go out and do what they want to be doing, and make a living while doing that. We have a lot of kids right now in our coding academy at Water Valley, Miss. They are walking out with a $50, 000 job.”
Hyde-Smith knows how nasty a campaign can be. She clearly loves her job, but what about that viciousness? What advice would she give to a young woman considering a career in politics? “Oh, it would be encouragement,” she replies, “but realistic encouragement—be realistic because the brutality is real. Anybody who went through Kavanaugh knows how it can get vicious. But God made people who can tackle those issues. You have to have that inner being about you that tells them that it’s what they want to do. When you go into politics, have the realization that, yes, it’s tough, and it is a J-O-B. But it’s so worthwhile. And to be able to be of any assistance and offer encouragement to the person who makes that decision, you have to tell them it’s not for the faint of heart. But even if it’s not all good, it’s certainly isn’t all bad—there are so many rewards.”
Spoken like a cowgirl, one who knows that even if the horse bucks, the ride is a lot of fun—and Hyde-Smith regards being a senator as so worthwhile for the citizens of her state that she is willing to miss the Tuesday cattle auction to serve.