Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
H.L. Moody has been involved with the Democratic Party of Arkansas for over 14 years and now serves as the party's communications director. I asked him about the election, the future of the Democratic Party in Arkansas and what it was like to be one of the most visibly out men in Arkansas politics.
So, what happened on Tuesday?
Well, a couple of things happened. One, and most notably, white working-class voters across the whole country did not vote for Hillary Clinton. And of course, Arkansas happens to be full of white working-class voters. So, at least for Arkansas, the result was somewhat predictable.
We lost some legislative seats that we worked really hard on, and I was really sad about that. Those folks ran some good races and some of them lost by less than the folks who ran [in previous election cycles], so that shows that we're gaining some ground. I think people keep asking us, "Where's the floor?" Well, we're there.
Is there a race that you were most disappointed in losing?
I do double duty as the communications director of the DPA and the chair of the Pulaski County Democrats, so of course I'm most disappointed in the legislative races we lost in Pulaski County. It is interesting, though, to go back and see where those races were won and lost, to look at the individual precincts where we won and to look at investing more resources there to try and build where we're already strong. There's still a lot of work to be done on that end.
Are you still in a phase of trying to armchair quarterback all of your decisions?
No. I'm trying very hard to look forward, and I've got a lot of reasons to do that. Not the least of which is that the legislative session starts in less than two months, and there's a lot of organizing to do between now and then to be sure that, as terrible legislation comes up, we can have folks on the Capitol steps, inside the Capitol, people calling legislators or sending them letters and emails. Our job now is to represent Democratic values and protect our rights.
Over the past week, many people have been asking where to go next from here. Have you been hearing that same sentiment from the party members that you've spoken to?
I think Secretary Clinton summed it up best when she said (at a charity gala on Nov. 16) that there were days when she wanted to curl up and never leave the house. I totally get that, but, as somebody that pays the electric bill by working in politics, I just don't have that luxury. Also, the longer I am lying down and feeling bad, the longer they can say the DPA is dead, and that's simply not the case.
We've been meeting internally and coming up with a structured plan for going forward and there's a lot of transition going on. If you look at the counties where we did well and the counties where we need to do better, and then look at the precincts where we did well and where we didn't, we can learn a lot about where we need to focus our resources in the future.
Eventually, we'll have an active county party in all 75 counties. Most people don't know that they can actually join the party, that you can actually be a member of the Democratic Party and that the way to do that is through the county party organization. That county organization elects members of the state committee and the members of the state committee elect the executive officers of the party, so in that way, the county organization is really integral to the overall statewide structure.
Our phones have been ringing, we've gotten emails and Facebook messages from people wanting to know how they can get involved, and we always point them back to that county party structure, especially in counties where we have a strong presence.
What else have you been hearing from people this past week?
Immediately after Election Day, even on election night, we started getting phone calls. They wanted to know how to get involved. They were horrified by what they were seeing on TV, and they wanted to know how to fight.
You know, the last time [when HB 1228 was passed] we finally yelled loud enough for people to notice. Corporations took notice, and the people that stood on the Capitol steps to protest what was going on inside quite literally stopped us from being in an economic situation like North Carolina. There's something to be said for that. Now we're aiming for that on a bigger scale. Now, people are actually plugged in and paying attention. For the first time, people who've never thought about activism personally are thinking about ways that they can join in, and the party can play a very important role as a conduit for those people. The party can be the mechanism that helps create social change, because real change comes from working on the inside and the outside. You have to have both.
I have to admit, you're sounding much more optimistic than I expected.
Well, I'm not one to wallow. You know, Maya Angelou, and more recently Justin Trudeau, said something along the lines of "no social issues are settled by fear," and I also think they don't get settled by people who sit on their ass. So it's time to get up, time to wipe our tears, and get over the fact that we didn't get what we wanted this time. We have to remember that we live in a country in which the democratic bargain is still very much alive: If you get defeated this time, you can still compete next time, and you might well win. And if Democrats, even in Arkansas, if all Democrats who feel the way we do actually went and voted, we'd start winning some of these elections. That's the trick for 2018 and 2020 and beyond. Frankly, sometimes anger is great motivator, but we have to be sure to turn that anger into activism.
Looking at the LGBT community, I feel like this time, for the first time, something clicked. Some of that angst and anger in the community turned to activism, and I personally saw, both at the Hillary office and at the DPA office, more LGBT people this time coming in to make phone calls and stuff envelopes and knock on doors. That's what it takes to get Democrats elected, and I think that it's when we all take some ownership of those elections that we start to make headway.
It's easy to say that the representative in Maumelle doesn't affect your downtown Little Rock life, except that it does because that guy is going to vote with his buddies on policies that are against what your family might need. So, we as an LGBT community and as a party have to take ownership of the wider picture and starting working towards change.
This isn't the time to hide; it's the time to be active. It doesn't necessarily even have to be with the party; it can be something in your local community that will make it better. If we all, as progressives, start pulling in that direction, we can make some things happen, even here. We have to go out and make a different kind of history now.
How long have you been involved with the DPA?
I worked my first campaign for the DPA in 2002, and I was a field coordinator then. It was my job to get volunteers, and if I couldn't get a volunteer to go and knock on doors I'd just do it myself.
How old were you during this?
Oh, let's see. I guess I would have been 23.
Were you out of the closet then?
Oh, yeah. I've been out since I was 18.
How was that?
Like pulling off a Band-Aid. It hurt, but once it was done, it was done; there was no going back. It took a while for some of the people in my life to get with the program, but they finally did for the most part. It took my mother the better part of 10 years to get used to the idea, but she's fine now.
Were you interested in politics even at that age?
Yes. The first time I actually remember a political campaign was the 1988 campaign when Dukakis was the Democratic nominee. I didn't really know what it all meant. I just remember seeing the contest as it was presented on the news. But then in 1992, when [Bill Clinton], who I had met at the duck calling contest in Stuttgart many times, was running, it suddenly became, almost in a way, personal for me.
I think I was 12 or 11 at that point, so there wasn't much I could do other than watch and learn. What I remember most is on election night, when [Clinton] won, I saw the live television footage of downtown Little Rock and the celebration and I knew I should have been there, that that was exactly where I was supposed to be. I guess since then I've been trying to get back to that place.
So, how did you move from knocking on doors to being the communications director for the entire party?
It certainly wasn't a traditional route. I started as an undergraduate at [the University of Arkansas at Little Rock] in 2003 and finally finished my degree in 2014, because I would work the campaign and then I'd go back to school and then work the campaign and so on.
In 2011, I went to a Stonewall Democrats meeting and the [former] party communications director was there, and I was a full time student at UALR and in need of an internship credit. I just asked if I could be her intern, and she said yes, and I was back at the DPA. Each time I went back, I learned something different and something that I carried over to the next cycle. I worked two cycles as deputy communications director for the Democratic Party of Arkansas (DPA), and even those experiences were incredibly different from one another.
Now, [in 2016] it's almost like the handcuffs are off. In the past, before we got ready to do something we'd have to run it by the governor's people — Sen. [Mark] Pryor's people, [former North Little Rock Mayor] Pat Hays' people, and the DNC — and all these people had to sign off on these things. And now that we don't have a sitting senator, we don't have a serious congressional game, it's just us.
The statewide membership of the DPA seems quite diverse. Obviously, we have people in the democratic strongholds here in Little Rock and Northwest Arkansas, but there are members all over the state. Was messaging for such diversity ever an issue?
Oh, sure, but there are also parts of the Democratic Party's left wing that live down on the farm in Nevada County and they'll call and give you an earful. You'll have what you expect to be some good ol' boy yelling that we aren't strong enough on gay marriage. You just never know which side it's going to come from here.
I am sensitive to the criticism that some people have that it's hard to tell the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans in Arkansas. I think that over the years we've grown in the way we talk about ourselves. One of the things I told Vince [Insalaco, DPA chairman] this time around, when he hired me as communications director, was that too many people felt that the D stood for default, not Democrat. For so long, Democrat is just what everyone was, and now that the Republicans have the majority, we had to really zero in on what our values actually were. What makes us a Democrat? If you had asked me in 2010 or 2012, "Why are you a Democrat," I probably would have had a harder time answering than I do now. And part of that is because we spent a lot of resources ... and we learned who we are and who we wanted to be.
I've always been jealous of the Republicans and the way they would all go on television or all go in the newspaper and sing the same song from the same page of the hymnal. I was always jealous because we couldn't do that, and part of that was because when you asked us on any particular issue what we believed you'd get all kinds of different answers. This time, if you look at our party platform, it's about double [the length] of what it used to be, but the additions have been really progressive value statements. And that's what a platform is supposed to be. It's got a lot more beef to it now because we know what the hell we believe. What we're trying to do is set up a DPA that can succeed in 2026, not necessarily in 2018. We've got our eye on a much longer game. I learned early on that transforming this party into the party I wanted to be wasn't going to come from sitting at home and making a witty Facebook post. It's about getting your hands dirty.
Is there a moment in your career with the DPA that you're most proud of or stands out as most memorable?
There was a woman ... I believe in 2004. She had called our office asking for a ride to the polls. I had never given a ride to the polls and I just happened to be the one to answer the calls so I agreed to give her a ride. I end up going to her house, she comes out and she's legally blind. She can see a little bit but not enough to read. I help her get into the car and take her to the poll where she needs help filling out her ballot. So I sign the paperwork that says I can help her, and we get in there to complete her ballot and I ask her who she'd like to vote for and she says George W. Bush. Now, in my mind I'm thinking that she's blind and we're in the room alone so nobody is going to know what I put on the paper, right? But I filled it out the way she wanted because I knew I'd probably go to hell if I didn't.
There are so many different examples with individual voters, both Democrat and Republican, in which something I've said has changed their mind or made them think about an issue in a new way. Too many stories to tell.
Has there ever been a time in your 14 years with the DPA in which your sexuality has been as issue?
Surprisingly, I don't think so. I think, at first, I expected it to be more of an issue than it probably was, but that had more to do with me than with anybody else. In 2002, when I worked that first campaign, the director of the coordinated campaign was Guy Cecil, who went on to be the director of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and he was with one of those big PACs that supported the Clinton campaign, and he was out at the time. So I had a really good role model. And I'm also good friends with Chad Griffin, who's president of the Human Rights Campaign and a really great role model for young out gay men from Arkansas. I don't think I was plowing a lot of new ground. Now I might have put my own mark on things as I went by, but other people walked that path before me. As far back as I can remember, there have always been LGBT people that have worked for the DPA.
I've run into this a couple of times, and maybe this is a common thing for LGBT people, but I've had times where I've met someone or worked with someone and eventually they tell me that I'm the first gay person that they've ever met and that I've caused them to think differently or see things a different way. And if that continued for the rest of my life, I'd be just fine because that's how the tide turns. It really is one attitude at a time.
Well, also in that span of time, we've had tremendous changes in LGBT rights and public acceptance. What has that been like to have the vantage point you've had?
In 2004, the amendment was passed that defined marriage as between a man and a woman and prevented gay couples from adopting. I was two years in at this point, and if you look at this year's election, I can barely point to a Republican using same sex marriage as an issue against a Democrat in Arkansas. It's an incredibly dramatic change in the tenor of the conversation. I think a large part of that is because it's now settled law.
You still might hear conservatives say that they believe marriage is between a man and a woman, but that's not what the law says. And you'll notice that they aren't campaigning on changing the law. It's just not the wedge issue that it used to be.
We have come a long way on LGBT issues, but what about transgendered Arkansans? Do you think we're going to see a so-called "bathroom bill" in the next legislative session?
Absolutely. Next session we're going to have to fight the bathroom bill, and they've already started making moves on a tax cut. Those are the two big fights that we're going to have to gear up for pretty quickly after the election. I've always thought that as the LGBT movement progressed ... the T got left behind.
Any predictions on how that fight will end?
No prediction whatsoever. I have no idea how that's going to end up. I know that it's going to be an issue that can easily turn people. The idea of some man hiding out in a dress so that he can touch your daughter ... is something that people can get really fired up about really quickly. But those same folks who get really fired up about that have probably never met a trans person and have absolutely no idea what they go through. And, of course, no one can point to the story of a trans person using their gender identity to commit a crime. You can't point to that story because it just doesn't exist.