Arkansas is a red state, likely getting redder, but there are still patches of true blue here and there. House District 35, currently represented by term-limited Rep. John Edwards, a Democrat, is one of the most heavily Democratic areas in the state. The district includes the Heights area, and also sprawls west beyond Pinnacle Mountain and dips deeply to south of Markham Street in a corridor along the east side of Interstate 430. It was drawn to add some Democratic neighborhoods to the historically Democrat-leaning territory. To give you an idea: President Obama may be persona non grata in Arkansas, but he carried District 35 in 2012.
So you might think that the seat was a lock for the D column. But Little Rock City Director Stacy Hurst, who has served on the City Board since 2002, is aiming to defy partisan expectations, running as a self-described "very moderate Republican." If the GOP can pick up the seat, it could be the difference in which party controls the state House in 2015.
Hurst, marketing director at her husband's Little Rock flower shop Tipton & Hurst, has argued that the legislature could benefit from having more moderate Republicans. She has focused on her support for increasing access to public pre-K, raising the minimum wage and supporting the private option — the state's unique policy using Medicaid funds available via Obamacare to purchase health insurance for low-income Arkansans. The private option in particular is a sweet spot for Hurst since it was passed with bipartisan support and championed by a number of prominent Republicans in the state.
Compared with Hurst, Democratic opponent Clarke Tucker is a newcomer to the political scene, but his name is well known in Little Rock. His father is prominent real estate developer and property manager Rett Tucker. Tucker, an associate in the Quattlebaum, Grooms, Tull and Burrow law firm, was student president of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and editor-in-chief of the University of Arkansas Law Review while at the UA law school in Fayetteville.
"One of the wonderful things about Arkansas politics is that a lot of times there's no rhyme or reason to the party of the candidate that people will vote for," Tucker said. "I think the voters tend to vote for who they think the best candidate for the job is regardless of their party affiliation." That said, Tucker said Democratic voters on the campaign trail have questioned whether the district is a fit for a Republican. "It is something that's coming up," he said. "I do think that party affiliation is an issue because the majority in the House of Representatives is up for grabs this year, and the party that's in the majority makes a big difference for the state. The people in this district know that. There have been some great Republicans in the legislature recently. But I think that Republicans being in power empowers people like [Conway Sen.] Jason Rapert and [Mena Rep.] Nate Bell. And some people in the district have expressed that concern to me."
With so little differentiating the candidates on policy, the race has gotten personal. The state Republican Party, on behalf of the Hurst campaign, made a Freedom of Information request to the Little Rock School District for documents related to the pre-K placement of Tucker's 4-year-old son. Hurst said that the FOI requests were initiated because of "rumors" she had heard "in social circles and cocktail party conversations."
When Tucker later issued a mailer arguing for increased access to pre-K and telling his own story of receiving a letter from the Little Rock School District that said there were no pre-K slots available for his 4-year-old son, Hurst campaign consultant Clint Reed took to social media and insinuated that the mailer was inaccurate.
The mailer is factually accurate, strictly speaking, stating that the Tuckers received a letter from the LRSD stating that the district "was not able to place [him] in a pre-K program due to limited space." But the Tuckers were offered a pre-K slot after the denial, and the dispute arises over when the Tuckers were offered a pre-K slot after they received the initial letter.
Tucker responded with a furious press conference with his wife, Toni, crying by his side. "This goes beyond mere fact-checking of a political ad," Tucker said. "It's investigating the educational records of a 4-year-old child in order to manufacture an attack using that child against his father." He called it "unacceptable" and "reprehensible" and called on Hurst to apologize. Hurst said she had nothing to apologize for and that the FOI requests were part of the normal "vetting" process.
The Hurst camp maintains that the emails received through FOI reveal that Tucker made inaccurate statements. The Tuckers say their accounts have been truthful. The details are convoluted and the available information is inconclusive.
"At the end of the day the most important thing here is that there were nearly 200 more slots for applications in pre-K programs in the Little Rock School District than there were openings for pre-K slots in the Little Rock School District," Tucker said. "We obviously had a difficult time in our family this summer with that process, and that reinforced to me the importance of making sure that every 4-year-old child in Arkansas has access to a quality pre-K education program, and that was the purpose of sending that mail piece."
Hurst responded, "This has really gotten off track. This is not about a 4-year-old whom we all want to have a great education, just like we do for all of our children. This is about the misrepresentation of facts by Clarke Tucker. The emails directly contradict Clarke Tucker's statements."
Hurst spoke to the Times regarding the FOI dustup but declined to be interviewed by telephone for this article. Her Facebook page and press releases suggest many similar policy stances to Tucker. That still might leave some questions for Democrats. Does her support for increased pre-K access mean supporting Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Ross' plan to offer a pre-K slot to every 4-year-old in Arkansas? Does support for a minimum wage increase mean she supports the ballot initiative to raise it to $8.50? Would she vote against her party on, say, a veto override of an unconstitutional abortion ban, or a resolution against gay marriage?
Another issue likely to pop up in the campaign is Hurst's vote on the City Board to approve a Murphy Oil gas station and convenience store at the intersection of 12th Street and South University Avenue.
"Every neighborhood association that has a vested interest in that area of Little Rock was unanimously opposed to the placement of that super-gas station there and the city Planning Commission staff recommended against it," Tucker said. "I think that was an unfortunate vote for the future development of that part of town, especially for the people who have worked for so long to make that a stable neighborhood for families in Little Rock."
Hurst has expressed anger that she was described as the deciding vote. She voted to allow the Murphy store, leading to a 5-5 tie; Mayor Mark Stodola then voted for it, breaking the tie. "If you want to get really technical about it, I'm the vote that caused the tie," Hurst told the Times in an earlier interview. "That's another misrepresentation."
Money is pouring in to the race. At the time of their last disclosure filings on Aug. 15, Tucker had raised around $154,000 and Hurst has raised around $244,000. Among Hurst's donors are billionaire investment banker Warren Stephens and his wife, Harriet; multiple sources told the Times that Hurst ran as a Republican at Stephens' behest.
The race has stakes beyond District 35. Republicans currently control the House 51-49 (one Green Party representative caucuses with the Democrats). Democrats believe they have a chance to retake it in 2015.
"My gut feeling is it's going to be really close and I would not want to put money on it either way," said Rep. Joe Jett (D-Success), who was the minority whip in the last session. The Hurst-Tucker race is "vital, extremely important," he said — both because every closely contested race could be the difference in shifting the balance of power and because of the district's location in Pulaski County. "It's kind of in the center of the storm, if you will," Jett said. "My vote has as much meaning as Clarke or Stacy's, but at the end of the day, that's the seat in Little Rock — a lot of times, it seems to me, it draws more attention."
Jett said that the bigger picture — control of the House — might influence Democratic voters in District 35. "I can't speak for everybody that lives there but if I lived there, I certainly would [take into consideration control of the House] because when you get inside of a caucus meeting, you don't really know how the dynamics will play out. That alone would give me pause. If the private option was near and dear to my heart, which it is, if I lived in that district, that would give me pause and concern."
The Speaker of the House, Jett pointed out, plays a big role in setting legislative strategy. "There's strategy that's being set up and played out before things even start rolling," he said. "We're either going to have a Democrat or a Republican setting that strategy."
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