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Asa the governor, Seth the labor organizer 

Gov. Hutchinson's youngest son talks about his hopes for a broad movement for social, economic and environmental justice.

Seth Hutchinson image
  • Seth Hutchinson

At his April 1 press conference requesting a last-minute compromise on HB 1228, the "religious freedom" bill that many saw as a license to discriminate against LGBT people, Gov. Asa Hutchinson mentioned his youngest son as an example of the deeply personal nature of the politics surrounding the bill.

"It has divided families and there is clearly a generational gap. My son Seth signed the petition asking me, Dad, the governor, to veto this bill. It shows that there is a generational difference on these opinions," Gov. Hutchinson said.

I became friends with Seth Hutchinson in 2003 when we were both attending college in Conway. For as long as I've known him, Seth has been committed to the politics and ethics of the left, yet he's also maintained good relationships with his deeply Republican family. Not long after graduating from the University of Central Arkansas in 2005, Seth began organizing for the Texas State Employees Union. He's 31 and now lives in Austin, where he continues to work for TSEU. When I called him to talk last week, Seth was driving back from a TSEU worker meeting at a juvenile justice facility in advance of the union's upcoming lobby day at the Texas legislature.

Something he emphasized repeatedly: He's not the reason his father reversed course on HB 1228. That was the work of the movement on the ground in Arkansas, he said. What follows is a Q&A with Seth:

When did you reach out to your dad about HB 1228?

He's known my position about this for a long time, but I first expressed my concerns about some of the anti-LGBT legislation happening in Arkansas a few weeks ago. That was after the first bill had already passed, SB 202, and I kind of regretted not having said something before then. I wanted to make sure I made a special appeal to my dad about 1228 since I missed my first opportunity.

So when this whole thing heated up, I sent him an email. I just did some research into it, put together the best arguments I found — that it would damage Arkansas's reputation, it could have an economic impact, it's become a divisive issue, it's going to cause confusion. I told him I respect and love him no matter what, but I felt compelled to make a special appeal on this because I have a lot of friends in the LGBT community in Arkansas and I feel pretty passionately about this. I told him I was going to sign the petition, but I wanted to let him know ahead of time. ... I didn't want that to catch him off guard.

He wrote me back the next day and responded to my points. He said he was going to put a lot of thought into it. He said he had some concerns about the bill as well. He told me he had no problem about me signing the petition, that he respected and loved me no matter what my political opinions were. That was really the last I heard of it until he called me and said he was going to mention my name in the press conference.

Did it surprise you at all that he decided to mention you?

It did. I felt a lot of things at once when I heard the news. I was very happy first and foremost that this issue was not over, and that the work of a lot of activists, a lot of everyday people voicing their concerns about it, thousands of people taking action on it, had actually made a difference.

I was also very proud of my dad for listening to those concerns, and for having the intelligence and thoughtfulness and regard to listen to those concerns and take them very seriously. And to have the courage to act on it.

Many people think that Walmart's opposition was really what swayed the governor. How much of his change of heart was due to business?

I think that the voices that were raised on all sides definitely gave him pause and made him realize how serious of an issue this was for everybody. And obviously, the more the issue was raised, the more symbolic it was and the more people paid attention to it, so the more negative impact it would have if it passed. I think [the business opposition] was part of the equation. I think that had an impact on his thinking. But I think that came about as a result of people really raising their voices and organizing to get the word out.

Do you see there being a need for explicit civil rights protections for LGBT people?

Yeah, definitely. Even if people aren't being fired left and right for being gay, it sends a signal that LGBT folks are welcome in our society, that they don't need to fear anything. Obviously, because of the history of discrimination that is there, it's needed. Even if all 50 states passed marriage laws, LGBT folks need to be a protected class as far as housing and employment. It needs to be a civil right that's established, because of that history — that we're saying no to that form of discrimination once and for all.

How does this fit in with labor organizing? Does it frustrate you that we don't see a similar outcry over issues of economic inequality?

I think a part of it is that with LGBT issues, the nature of it is that anybody's kid, anybody's brother, anybody's sister can turn out to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. And so, the longer these issues go on, the more people are going to be exposed to family members, friends and neighbors who are in that community. Obviously, to create that space where people can be open and out has taken a lot of work on the part of a lot of people. But I think eventually everyone is going to be exposed to somebody on a personal level [who is LGBT].

But when you're talking about economic issues, issues of class — rich people mostly hang out with each other, middle class people mostly hang out with each other, and working class people, poor people, are isolated in their own neighborhoods and their own churches and communities. There's not much crossover. If your immediate family is rich, usually, most or all of your family is rich.

And the same thing with race, obviously ... if you're white, your family is white. Most of your friends are white. We live in a segregated society, so it's harder to break down those barriers over time, without even more organizing and agitating to try to bring folks together.

So if the key to making progress on LGBT rights is exposure and the empathy that comes with that, is there a way to apply that lesson to other areas?

I think the LGBT movement has got momentum right now. It's brought in a lot of folks who have never taken political action before on an issue. But I want to see the LGBT movement not end the fight when marriage equality happens, which I think is now going to happen. It can't end there.

We've got to make the connections with communities of color that have been organizing and agitating for centuries for equal rights and economic justice. And gender equality, for feminist movements, to make the connection there about discrimination. With economic issues in general, with the way that working-class people are trampled upon and exploited across the world. There's the huge issue of immigration, and how immigrants are being exploited right now, and demonized.

I would hope that all the people who have been motivated to move on the LGBT issue would just see it one step further and make the connection with all these other movements for justice that have been going on for so long — to unite, and to form a broader movement for social justice, for economic justice, and for environmental justice and really work to make a change in this country.

My own family isn't particularly conservative, but I was raised in a conservative Arkansas community, like you. I feel squeamish about some of the rhetoric I hear out there putting down Arkansas, rural people, even Christians. I don't like the smugness.

Yeah. If you want to build a movement, you can't build it with people who agree with you 100 percent. For one thing, nobody agrees with anyone 100 percent of the time. And number two, if you try to build your movement on people who already agree with you, it's going to be very small. You're not going to get anything done.

If we are going to build a movement to bring positive change, it's going to be a mass movement, and that means you've obviously got to bring in people who think very differently than you do right now. You've got to meet them where they are and you've got to try to move them along.

You've got to reach out to folks. You can't segregate yourself based on ideas, just as you can't segregate yourself based on race or class.

Especially since ideas are so fluid.

Yeah. I'm an example of that. As a kid I was very conservative. I believed the values and political beliefs that my parents taught me. And I still carry on a lot of values and beliefs that my parents passed on, but I've also evolved my own political views that are different.

Have you and your dad reached a point where you both understand where you're coming from?

Definitely. I mean, there were some rocky moments in there, but a big part of it was that I was a teenager. I was evolving my own political views at the same time I was being a smartass. Nowadays, me and my dad are great. We have a very good relationship. We go hiking together — we've taken some fantastic trips together in our adult lives. And we talk regularly on the phone.

Do you talk politics much?

It's both of our full-time jobs, so yeah. We discuss ideas. And usually it's very clear we're not attacking each other. We're just discussing our perspectives on it. My dad's a smart guy. Everything I know about debate, I learned from him, so I love talking to him about that stuff.

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