This small south Arkansas city was once one of the top oil producers in the nation.
Mike Ross speaks with more clarity and confidence than before. Or maybe it's that I’m listening more respectfully.
Surely these are the best of times for this skeet-shooting sonofagun I got to know a quarter-century ago when he was a 20-year-old travel aide to Bill Clinton.
Later he was state director of the Michael Dukakis presidential campaign and aide-de-camp to Winston Bryant. Then, at 29, he became a state senator from his native Southwest Arkansas, doing mostly what Mike Beebe told him.
Through it all, he struck me as over-eager, a wannabe and not possessed of the greatest depth. Mostly he was young. But those first impressions lingered until, well, just the other day.
Now it seems that the re-emergence of the Arkansas Democratic Party pretty much began with Ross and is adapted from his model.
This story starts in 2000. The state’s congressional delegation was split evenly with three Democrats and three Republicans. The governor and lieutenant governor were Republicans. Traditionally Democratic Arkansas appeared primed to tip to the GOP.
The 4th District across South Arkansas, conservative but traditionally Democratic, was represented by Jay Dickey of Pine Bluff, an odd Republican with a plum appointment to the Appropriations Committee.
Ross ran against Dickey, declaring himself a conservative and venturing as an alien Democrat to a massive NRA rally in Hot Springs to get booed even as he declared his devotion to gun rights.
He worked harder than your average politician. His message discipline was nigh unto robotic.
He won, narrowly. He persuaded thousands of South Arkansans who voted for George W. Bush to cast a vote for him. He persuaded thousands in a needy district to vote against continued representation by a majority-party appropriator.
Two weeks ago Ross got 75 percent for a fourth term. He'd spent the last couple of days of the campaign accompanying Beebe around the 4th District to lend his old mentor the vital conservative bona fides that helped the Democratic gubernatorial nominee win massive majorities across South Arkansas.
“I’m a conservative Democrat,” Ross said last week. “There are basic issues that make all Democrats Democrats. They’re about educational opportunity and economic opportunity, affordable health care, raising the minimum wage. After that, there are social issues that separate us. I’m pro-gun. I believe abortion should be permitted only to save the life of the mother and in cases of rape or incest. I’m against gay marriage. I’m for school prayer.”
Imitations or close adaptations of that propelled Mark Pryor to the U. S. Senate and Beebe to the governorship.
Today, five of those six Washington delegates are Democrats. In January, Democrats will occupy all seven statewide constitutional offices.
This Arkansas model for a Democrat, as Ross describes and practices it, is to get safely past the social and cultural hurdles — guns and religious issues, primarily — so that the rest of the battle can be decided by matters of economic justice that are the Democrats’ natural strengths.
You say Ross sounds like a Republican? That’s correct if you mean one who will vote to raise the minimum wage and authorize Medicare to negotiate drug prices.
There's still a difference. It’s narrow, maybe, but deep.
Now there's even the matter of Ross' national influence. He just got elected one of three chairmen of the Blue Dogs, a coalition of centrist and center-right Democratic House members committed to fiscal discipline.
Two years ago, Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, called Ross and said he wanted him to join eight other “lieutenants” who would help identify potential Democratic House gains and recruit and coach candidates.
The candidate whom Ross was primarily assigned to mentor was Heath Schuler, the former Tennessee quarterback who got elected in North Carolina.
The message of the mid-terms, Ross said, was that voters want moderate, solution-driven, nonpartisan politics. Democrats will make a fatal error, he said, if they simply pay back Republicans for shutting them out for more than decade.
Personally, I’ve decided to start listening to the skeet-shooting sonofagun.
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