A Calling and Commitment To Serve
By Jack Criss
The first woman ever elected as Mississippi’s Agriculture Comm-issioner, the first woman to represent Mississippi in Congress through appointment and the first woman from Mississippi elected to Congress, Cindy Hyde-Smith puts a higher power as “first” in her personal life.
“Terrible things are happening in our country right now,” says Senator Hyde-Smith. “But, God must be placed first and He is in control. This belief has been a guiding principle throughout my life and career, and I think it has served me well. And, I also think that great things are ahead for this nation.”
Born and raised in Monticello in Lawrence County, Mississippi, Hyde-Smith spent her formative years in the house where her mother still lives today.
“It was a very wholesome, faith-based, Christian atmosphere I was fortunate to grow up in,” says Hyde-Smith. “My parents were wonderful, hard working people. One memory I have that stands out is when I was in the tenth grade and had just received my driver’s license. A friend of the family was running for the legislature and although he ultimately was unsuccessful in his bid, I drove my dad’s pick-up truck and campaigned for him all over the district. I was fifteen years old and that was my first, real taste of politics. We would also have numerous candidates come to the house to talk with Mom and Dad and I’d be in the corner hanging on to every word. It struck me even then how important it is for the right person to get elected to any office.”
Hyde-Smith says her parents were not overtly political, but they were conservative people. Her father owned a trucking company and was a truck driver and her mother was a hairdresser.
“Looking back, I’m so grateful to have those rural roots where so many wonderful lessons are learned from hardworking, salt-of-the-earth people,” says Hyde-Smith. “My family had a big garden every year and one of my mother’s favorite sayings was ‘I’m not raising peas, I’m raising children.’ And, so we had to pick those peas before we could do anything else!”
Hyde-Smith says she would rise at daylight picking okra, squash, peas and other vegetables as well as performing other chores the family needed and expected of her. This upbringing instilled a work ethic that has served Hyde-Smith well throughout her life and career. A tenacious attitude has also played a role in Hyde-Smith’s career trajectory. Hyde-Smith went on to graduate from Copiah–Lincoln Community College with an Associate of Arts and the University of Southern Mississippi with a Bachelor of Arts. Entering the workforce, Hyde-Smith joined a successful trade association with offices in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. dealing primarily with rail and trucking safety issues—which took her all over the country and allowed her to get a good sense of the make-up of America and the issues and challenges many parts of the country faced.
In 1996, Hyde-Smith married a fifth-generation cattle rancher from Brookhaven, Michael Smith, of whom she once said, “I tell everybody, the two things that 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.”
The year 1999 proved to be a pivotal year for Hyde-Smith as she quit her job, became a mother at 40 years old, and shortly thereafter ran for a seat in the Mississippi Senate against a longtime incumbent and won.
“I well remember, while helping another candidate at one point prior to my own running, the late Kirk Fordice telling me, ‘Well, maybe you ought to be the one running,’” says Hyde-Smith. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh, no, I don’t need to do this.’ But, you know, as time went on people started coming to me and encouraging me to run and so one day I looked at my husband and said, ‘I’m going to do it.’ I was 40 years old, left a very good and prestigious job. The day I qualified to run my baby girl turned five weeks old. It was a whirlwind. As was the actual race. You probably wouldn’t believe the stories. Running against a 20-year incumbent was interesting, to say the least.”
When asked what quality or qualities she thought the voters saw in her, Hyde-Smith answers, “Tenacity. Pure tenacity. I got out and beat the bushes. And, never prayed harder in my life. Being in session would mean a lot of days away from my family, my daughter, and I was worried about who would be able to take care of her when I was away. I ended up calling the Pentecostal Church in Lincoln County and the next day a lady came to my front door and ended up staying with us for six years. It was so apparent to me that she was a prayer answered—there’s no question. I commuted when I could and ‘Nanny G’ helped us for those six years.”
Hyde-Smith served three terms in the State Senate. She says those early days were somewhat intimidating with learning all of the protocol and procedures.
“I wouldn’t trust anyone who would say they weren’t intimidated,” Hyde-Smith says of those who enter the Legislature. “On top of that, I did not know one single Senator when I first walked out on that floor. Not one.”
But, Hyde-Smith quickly bonded with many of her fellow Legislators including, interestingly enough, some of the friends of the incumbent she had defeated.
“You win people over and when your peers see you working hard and see that you want to represent your district to the best of your abilities, they respect you—they notice,” she says. “Looking back now, those years in the Mississippi State Senate were some of the best years of my life.”
Hyde-Smith says one of the things that stands out to her during her time in the Legislature, and something she’s still proud of to this day, started with a phone call she received from a grandmother, a woman Hyde-Smith had known all her life.
“She told me her grandson was legally blind and did not receive his school books in braille until November, even while the school year started in August,” says Hyde-Smith. “He was in the tenth grade and the woman told me that had always been the case for the young man, Brooks Walls. It took longer for the books to be ordered and, at the time, state law said books could not be ordered before June 1st. I assured her that laws could be changed. I went to the Mississippi School for the Blind and Deaf and sat down with them and brought the issue. Apparently, Brooks’ experience was the same for all students with disabilities—and no one had tried to help at all. So, we passed a bill and got the law changed to make sure these kids all got their books when school started like every other student. No one had taken the time to fix this problem and it truly broke my heart. I got letters from all over the state thanking me for this one simple problem that turned out to be so easy to fix. I still hear from Brooks today. He graduated from college, got married and is in the financial business now. I’ll always treasure the fact that I was able to make a difference for so many children.”
The next step in Hyde-Smith’s political career came by way of a phone call from then-Agriculture Commissioner, Lester Spell.
“He told me he was not going to be running again,” she says. “I immediately asked him who he was considering taking his place and he said, ‘I think you’ll make a fine one.’ I was Chairman of Ag in the Senate, but I thought, ‘Oh, no—I’m not running for a statewide office.’ I thanked Lester, told him I was flattered, but the thought of campaigning in eighty-two counties while already having a full life was not in my plans. I ended up bouncing the idea off of my good friend, Mike Cheney, and others. Then, I got on my knees to pray. When God starts opening those doors you just have to step through them. But, I’ll admit, that was a hard door to step through. I agreed to run. Campaigning statewide was a hard, grueling, and very stressful experience. We won, and won it again the second time, which was a lot easier.”
A woman as Ag Commission, though? In Mississippi?
“There was actually very little opposition to that idea,” says Hyde-Smith.
Hyde-Smith says farmers are the backbone of Mississippi and that it was a pleasure and invaluable experience to have the opportunity to work with and for them.
“We dealt with several challenging issues, such as the Avian Flu issue—which caused a lot of anxiety—but we were prepared,” says Hyde-Smith. “It took a lot of work and planning, but we were prepared and made it through. Also, going into Beijing, China, and Hong Kong after a period in which the Chinese government has banned U.S. beef for thirteen years because of ‘Mad Cow Disease’ concerns. We let them know that we had a great product, a product my own family had raised, and that they needed it. And then to have them finally lift the ban was tremendous. I was not supposed to say much during the meetings, but when my light came on and the interpreter was ready, I talked about it. I brought up the issue of our beef to them, even after being explicitly told via email not to do so by the Under-Secretary of Ag in the Obama administration. There was no way that I was going to travel 10,000 miles and not bring it up. I didn’t care who I made mad: I wanted the Chinese to know they needed to resume purchasing American beef. And sure enough, a few weeks after our meetings, the ban was lifted and they’ve been buying it ever since.”
And, while Ag Commissioner was a great job and Hyde-Smith was completely fulfilled, a chance encounter inside of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. would soon change the direction of her life once again.
“I was fortunate enough to attend the President’s State of the Union Address and Gregg Harper was kind enough to get me in,” says Hyde-Smith. “Governor Phil Bryant was there. It was funny because he looked up and saw me in the Gallery and had this facial expression like ‘What are you doing here?!’ It was a wonderful experience. First Lady Melania Trump walked right by me. The whole Trump family was sitting in front of me. Governor Bryant later told me that it was at that moment he truly realized how diligent and committed I was to my career. That’s when he later approached me about the Senate.”
After Senator Thad Cochran announced his retirement in 2018, Governor Bryant approached Hyde-Smith about being appointed to replace the senator. At first, she was adamant about not running.
“So, once again, I had a long talk with my husband and trusted in God, was submissive to His will, to guide me in this important decision,” she says. “We prayed endlessly and finally, I sat down with Governor Bryant at the Mansion and told him I was willing to do it. I had never jockeyed for the job, but told him I would be interested in his idea, but if he ended up changing his mind overnight, that would be fine with me. Of course, we made the announcement in Brookhaven the next day and God’s will was done. I felt ready and comfortable and wasn’t worried about not knowing what I didn’t know. People like Roger Wicker took me under his wing in Washington and so many others were extremely helpful, including Senator Cochran’s staff who stayed on to assist me. I leaned on them heavily initially—but it was the right choice. I look back now and it was definitely the right decision.”
Hyde-Smith soon found her sea legs and hit the ground running.
“It was a major leap though,” she says of her move to U.S. Senate from the ag commissioner’s office in Jackson. “You have to be ready to tackle the job from day one. My first test was the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation and it was tough. I was the first female to go to the floor and defend now-Justice Kavanaugh. Nothing prepares you for that kind of battle, that kind of publicity and notoriety. It was game-on after I defended him and many problems followed, several involving my personal safety. I had a stalker. It was very frightening.”
Since arriving in Washington, the Senator says she has made many friends in the Senate and in the D.C. area. And then, of course, there’s the President of the United States.
“The first time I met Donald Trump was just a few weeks after I was sworn in,” she recalls. “I was led into the Oval Office and what an awesome experience it was. He was extremely kind and told me, ‘Cindy, you’re going to be one of my ‘go to’ folks.’ I brought along Brad White, my Chief of Staff, to meet the President and he had his photo taken with him. That was important to me. I had, of course, never been in the Oval Office and, honestly, it can make you feel small. But, I was also there for a purpose and that things would happen because of the meeting. The President has always been on my side and supported me. I’ve been called to meet with him at The White House several times and he has listened to me and been extremely helpful.”
Hyde-Smith says that after the many years she has spent in politics, one develops a thick skin. You have to.
“I’ve gotten used to it. You’ve got to ignore all of the noise. You keep marching forward and you get to the other side eventually. So many things get thrown at you, though. You have to ignore a lot of it. I know my constituents, and I know who I trust and who I respect. Those are the people I count on and depend on. My campaign for Senate was tough but you trust in God and trust in those who believe in you. That’s what got me through and got me elected to return to the Senate.”
Hyde-Smith says she believes she and her team have accomplished much during her tenure.
“When you work hard, good things happen,” she says. “You have to take care of every little detail for your constituents. I’ve had to reach across the aisle from time to time and that’s part of the work and the process. Sometimes you have to go face-to-face and take care of pressing issues. Just like the current situation with the EPA and the Yazoo Backwater Pumps in the Delta. That’s a critical issue to me and for the Delta. The Delta is where the heart of agriculture is and we have to protect that great Delta farmland. You cannot have farmland underwater—period. It’s time for the pumps to be built because the process has gone on for much too long. We’ve got to get it done.”
The legislative push-and-pull of a divided Congress only got more complex this year with the health emergency and economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Hyde-Smith’s tenacity is again serving as an asset for Mississippians, as she has worked to get relief delivered to rural hospitals, that community health centers were linked to telemedicine resources, and small businesses qualified for forgivable business loans. She fought successfully to get Delta products, like catfish, included in USDA COVID-19 food assistance programs.
“This pandemic has been so disruptive to our live lives, jobs, and our economy,” she says. “But I remain filled with hope that we will get past these difficulties with great faith and by working together, just like we always have in tough times.”
Hyde-Smith emphasized the goal of her political career “is prosperity for all. For all Mississippians and Americans. The right to live a life of dignity and the right to worship as we please. Those are the ideals I carry with me as I walk into that Capitol,” the Senator summarizes.