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click to enlarge PROGRESSIVE WOMEN: PAC members meet weekly.
  • PROGRESSIVE WOMEN: PAC members meet weekly.

Melissa Fults, Susan Inman and Victoria Leigh, who are running for the state House of Representatives, and state Rep. Camille Bennett, who is running for re-election, will be the first politicians to benefit from Progressive Arkansas Women, a newly formed political action committee meant to encourage liberal-minded women to run for the legislature.

The PAC was formed after Bettina Brownstein, a lawyer, mentioned to her friend Katherine West, an activist for women's issues, that she wanted to raise money for women running for the legislature. West suggested creating a PAC.

"Eww, no," was how Brownstein described her reaction to the idea. A PAC to her was a dirty word. But West prevailed.

It's hard for progressive women to raise money to make a run for the General Assembly, West explained: The big money goes to men, especially conservative men (and women). Part of the idea of creating a PAC was to "show that women can raise money," and that there is interest in fielding progressive candidates. There's money for female congressional candidates, but the down ticket races "get lost," West said, adding that it was terrible, but true, that "the only way to have influence is money."

The PAC was registered June 7 and has raised $20,000 since then. "We are getting positive feedback," West said; "people are realizing there is a real need for this."

Contributions to the PAC are capped at $5,000; contributions from the PAC are limited to $2,700 per candidate and $2,700 to another PAC. With its inaugural fundraiser — Dame$, Dem$ and Drink$ — set for 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Aug. 11, the PAC will grow its dollars even more. Dame$ will feature signature cocktail tastings, snacks and information about women candidates and legislators.

Though the fundraiser has Dem$ in its name, Brownstein said the PAC would support a Republican woman, if she were progressive. That may be an oxymoron in today's GOP, when Rockefeller Republicans have gone extinct.

Progressive means unabashedly pro-choice. It means standing up to budgets that will impair access to health care or hurt the public schools. It means a desire to stem incarceration and to regulate guns. The progressive, Brownstein said, is community-minded and "not opposed to paying taxes" for services that benefit the common good. "Men concentrate on building highways instead of feeding schoolchildren," West said.

"I'm really worried about what's going on in Arkansas," Brownstein said. It's bad enough that Arkansas's male legislators and the governor have enacted laws that hinder women's access to abortion and contraception (with Gov. Hutchinson's decision to refuse Medicaid reimbursement to Planned Parenthood, a decision being litigated). But most of the women in the legislature — who number only 28 out of a body of 135 — supported and sponsored such laws. Arkansas has a woman attorney general, too, but she is no progressive: Leslie Rutledge criticized the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling last week that Texas had placed an undue burden on women seeking an abortion with its law requiring abortions to be performed in surgical facilities, rules not even applied to other more dangerous medical procedures, such as colonoscopies. Virtually no one, including their sponsors, believes such laws were passed to "protect" women, as Rutledge said. (Arkansas has a law similar to Texas' in that it requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital; it is being contested in court.)

Despite steady attempts by elected officials to chip away at women's rights, Brownstein nevertheless believes that Arkansas has an "untapped reservoir" of progressive women and men who want to recruit and contribute to women candidates who'll work against self-serving laws.

Fults, a dairy goat farmer who lives in East End, will face former state Rep. Andy Mayberry for District 27, which includes parts of Pulaski and Saline counties. Fults is the campaign director for Arkansans for Compassionate Care, a group pushing for legalizing marijuana for medical use, and would like to expand pre-K education. Mayberry authored a bill that bans abortion after 20 weeks.

Inman, the former chair of the Pulaski County Election Commission who lost to Mark Martin in the 2014 race for secretary of state, faces state Rep. Jim Sorvillo for the District 32 seat. One of Inman's chief concerns is the struggle of the elderly to pay for housing and medicine. Sorvillo wants to lower the state's income tax and is for "school choice." District 32 covers West Little Rock.

Leigh, a lawyer, faces state Rep. Carlton Wing for the District 38 seat, which covers parts of North Little Rock and Sherwood. Leigh describes herself as being "pro-equality" and wants universal pre-K; Wing is a former sportscaster who wants to lower taxes.

Bennett, an incumbent, is being challenged by Roger Lynch for the District 14 seat. Bennett is a lawyer who says her focus is on jobs for her district, which includes parts of Lonoke, Jefferson, Pulaski, Arkansas and Prairie counties. Lynch, who sits on the Lonoke County Quorum Court, describes himself as a "pro-life conservative" and a "supporter of gun rights."

In its infancy, the PAC will support women legislative candidates in Pulaski County only, but its officers — Brownstein, West, Debbie Goolsby, Murry Newbern, LeAnne Robertson and JoAnne Mills — hope women in other counties will follow suit.

The Dame$ fundraiser date was chosen to mark the 96th anniversary of the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote. (White women, at least, "Arkansas Talks" host (KABF-FM, 88.1) and PAC supporter Pat Rogers pointed out to the group at its last meeting.). But, as the PAC's logo notes and West said, "The vote was not enough."

For more information, go to the Facebook page for Progressive Arkansas Women PAC.

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