Ricky Fore showed up early at Patti’s Kitchen and Sandwich Shop in Rison (population 1,300) to see his congressman, Tom Cotton
. “He’s a breath of fresh air instead of the same old humdrum politics we’ve been having to put up with for forever,” Fore said. “He says some things that make me proud to support him. The whole way we’re going down the tube, it’s socialism.”
Cotton held a “Coffee with your Congressman” event in Rison last Wednesday and though it was technically a visit with constituents rather than a campaign stop, his challenge to Sen. Mark Pryor
was a big topic of conversation among the 30 or so Rison residents who came out for the event.
“Pryor has voted with extreme liberals 95 percent of the time,” said Larry Hall, a retired railroad worker. “He supported Obama on most all his issues. We’re going straight to hell with Obama, straight to it.”
Hall added, “I’m hoping Mr. Cotton will pull it out, but it’s probably going to be close.”
On paper, Tom Cotton should be winning. He’s running in an off-year election with a likely electorate favoring Republicans, in a state trending dead red. President Obama’s approval ratings in Arkansas are in the low 30s. And then there’s Cotton’s resume: Harvard undergrad, Harvard law, Army Ranger who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet Cotton seems stuck in the polls. Just why that’s so is a matter of debate among the chattering classes, but one theory is that he hasn’t been able to translate that resume into the sort of human being that voters can relate to. He can be stiff in public appearances – he’s an extremely disciplined politician, but can come across as robotic. Cotton is viewed nationally as a rising star but he thus far hasn’t mastered the skill that has made more than a few Arkansas politicians famous: making all those talking points sound like aw-shucks empathy.
It was a pretty afternoon in Rison, so people decided to gather in a park next to Patti’s.
“We’ve got a lot of unemployment in southeast Arkansas,” said John Appleget, retired from the FDA. “We’ve got a lot of businesses that have closed over the last few years. I’d like to hear what our congressman can do for bringing jobs to this area. I’m 100 percent behind Cotton. Pryor has been there long enough and he’s supported Obama more than I want anyone to support him.”
Randall Manus, a retired warden, told me his biggest concern was “the big chasm between socialism and capitalism.” Which one was the country going toward, I asked. “I don’t think we’re going, we’ve gotten there. We haven’t had a capitalist economy since the first day that Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, ‘so help me God.’ You picked the wrong guy to talk to about ‘I love America.’ I love what American used to be. I love the America of my father and grandfather.” He added that even though he keeps voting for Republicans, “the last decent Republican we had was Herbert Hoover.”
I spoke with more than a dozen folks, and was interested given the tone of the campaign that none brought up Obamacare when I asked what issues they were concerned with. The most common ones were the economy and jobs, then concerns about environmental regulation, education, and balancing the budget. One mentioned “marriage between a man and a woman instead of between Bob and Bill” and “don’t cut the damn defense.” Maybe the polls are right
that people are simply tired of talking about Obamacare.
Of course, when I did bring it up, I'd get a taste of the fierce antipathy that remains for the law among the Republican base (which helps explain why Cotton keeps mentioning it over and over
): “Probably the worst thing that could happen to this country is Obamacare”...“I think everyone deserves to have health insurance but the government doesn’t need to the one doing it”...“Obamacare will never work”...“it’s meant to fail from the beginning." Opinions were more mixed on the private option
— a topic that Cotton has
— ranging from "I really don't think it's a bad deal" to "just an extension of Obamacare" to people who didn't know one way or the other.
Cotton arrived right on time, wearing a crisp white shirt and tie, slacks and cowboy boots, and began to mingle one by one. At six foot five, he stood a head above most of the crowd. There was no speech, just a series of individual conversations. Cotton seemed comfortable and relaxed, fielding questions about the Clean Water Act and the Army and the post office (one constituent was very concerned about the possibility of losing Saturday service; Cotton said the main trouble was overly high pensions). He's a patient listener and was quick to laugh. He clearly has a formal manner, but seemed, well, at ease
— telling stories and jokes, asking questions, promising to follow up with constituents on this or that issue. I imagine that his campaign would very much like to get this Cotton into the public eye.
The one moment when things went off script came when Special Sanders and Maria Santos, who had traveled from Monticello, asked Cotton about immigration. Sanders is an organizer for Arkansas United Community Coalition
and Santos is a 17-year-old "DREAMer" (she came to the United States as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico when she was a child). They asked Cotton about the comprehensive immigration reform bill, which he opposes. "I don't think it's good for America," Cotton said. "I don't think it's good for our workers here. I don't think it's good for immigrants waiting in line around the world. I think we obviously need to reform our immigration system. We have to enforce our immigration laws and give the American people confidence that we're going to — in 1986, we passed immigration reform and did amnesty first and enforcement second. We didn't get to enforcement. ... And look at where we are now. We have over 10 million illegal immigrants. The first step is to enforce our immigration laws and secure our borders."
Santos, who recently applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals
and said she hoped that DACA will help her work legally to help her family, asked Cotton, "I was wondering why you didn't vote for DACA?"
Cotton responded: "Well, we didn't have a vote on DACA because that was an administrative action by the president." But his feelings on it, he said, were "largely the same as immigration as a whole because if we don't enforce our borders we're encouraging people to bring their young children here illegally." Cotton said there was a risk of murders, rapes and assaults that happen when people try to emigrate from Mexico into the U.S. "Again, it goes back to securing our borders, enforcing our immigration laws as they exist on the books to ensure that whatever immigration reform is enacted, we don't have to continue to address the problem of people who are in the country illegally."
I asked Santos afterwards what she thought. "His opinion — I know it's an opinion and everything — but I didn't like the way that he talked about borders and stuff about the people that are not from here."
Now, obviously, it was basically inevitable that Santos wouldn't love what Cotton had to say. His sincerely held beliefs have adverse consequences for folks like Santos. It's only natural to retreat to the familiar speech, coldly delivered. He answered honestly and didn't say anything wrong. He was disciplined. He hit the talking points.
But I was left thinking about what Santos said: "the way that he talked." Cotton said a line he's probably said a hundred times — "we're encouraging people to bring their young children here illegally" — without acknowledging that Santos was once one of those children. Being a politician is hard, but this is part of what being a politician is about.
A reporter from the Cleveland County Herald was nice enough to invite me to join him for an interview after the event with Cotton, but one of the congressman's handlers quickly vetoed the idea — "local media only." Maybe next time.