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At the end of this year’s legislative session, state senators cast secret ballots to elect their next president pro tempore. Reliable accounts said the vote was split 18-17 in favor of Democrat Jack Critcher, who represented “The Brotherhood,” a coalition of legislators who organized to protect pet pork projects and carry water for special interests. Critcher’s opponent, Republican David Bisbee, was considered the progressive in the contest.
This was after Democrats like Sen. Bob Johnson led an effort to overturn Central Arkansas Water’s ability to protect the Lake Maumelle reservoir in favor of Deltic Timber’s desire to develop land on its shores. Other Democrats sponsored and co-sponsored bills or otherwise voted to relax environmental restrictions, interfere with a woman’s access to an abortion, deny undocumented immigrants access to social services, and benefit big business over workers.
On the federal level, both U.S. senators from Arkansas are Democrats, but they sometimes vote with the Republican majority on key issues, like tort reform, tightening of the bankruptcy laws, repeal of the estate tax, and judicial nominations.
All of this contributes to a growing frustration among some Democrats that the party no longer stands for the values it embodied when Bill Clinton, Dale Bumpers and David Pryor were its most visible leaders. They wonder: Has the Arkansas Democratic Party lost its soul?
“I’m not sure it ever had as much soul as some would suggest in asking that question,” said Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College. “I think it had successful party leaders who had some soul to their political lives, and they gave the party soul or passed on some of that soul temporarily. But I don’t know if the party per se had a soul. It’s a vehicle for candidates, and there is still an opportunity for a new leader who would play that role.”
Much of the diversity of opinion within the Democratic Party may be a holdover from the days when Arkansas was a one-party state and winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to election for any office. Plus Arkansas has a conservative history, especially when it comes to social issues, so conservative Democrats are nothing new.
However, Democratic state Rep. Joyce Elliott believes the recent growth of the Republican Party in Arkansas may be providing a back-drop against which Democrats see their own internal conflicts reflected.
“I think the Democratic Party has changed,” Elliott said. “As the Republican Party has grown and we’ve seen more people who profess to be conservatives, the Democratic Party has given sway to some of that conservatism as a way of competing. I think that is a mistake, because ‘me-too-ism’ just doesn’t give people a choice.”
Clint Reed, the executive director of the Arkansas Republican Party, sees an inconsistency of message between Arkansas Democrats and their national party leaders.
“I think Republicans are known for certain principles that they adhere to fundamentally whether it’s state, national, county or local elections,” Reed said. “On the flip side, when you look at Democrats in Arkansas versus John Kerry running for president, they may not embrace the same ideological views.”
State House Speaker Bill Stovall agrees that Democrats suffer in Arkansas because the state and national party organizations have different priorities and policy orientations.
“The Arkansas Democratic Party is shouldering some of the issues on the federal level,” Stovall said. “Unfortunately, many Arkansans get confused from time to time about the fact that very little can be done about babies, Bibles, guns and flags at the state level.”
Stovall calls himself a “farm-lovin’, gun-totin’ Democrat,” and says he is a Democrat because he believes in the party’s “philosophy of economics.”
“I don’t believe that we can balance the budget of the state and federal government on the backs of the poor and moderate-income alone,” he said. “But I’m pro-life, and I find myself disconnected from the more liberal part of the national party.”
Caught in the middle are Democratic U.S. Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, who have to work with their party leaders in Washington, D.C., but ultimately are answerable to voters back in Arkansas.
“I would call the Democratic Party in Arkansas a hybrid,” Pryor said. “We’re pro-business, but we’re also pro-little-guy. We have a popu-list, progressive element, but we’re also pro-economic development programs. Nationally, sometimes they scratch their heads about how that can work, but that’s the thing about Arkansas. We don’t require false choices.”
One choice Lincoln and Pryor had to make this year was how to vote on legislation that increased bankruptcy penalties and made it more difficult to dissolve debt. They were among only 18 Senate Democrats to vote for the bill (which became law last month), earning the scorn of many members of their party in Arkansas and around the nation.
Lincoln said, “I worked hard to try to make the bill better. Did I get everything I want? No. But rarely do I get to vote for anything that has everything I want in it.”
“I had a lot of reservations about the bankruptcy bill,” Pryor said. “I felt the credit card companies were doing well under this. But on balance, I talked to people on this. It was a tough vote to cast, but that’s what voters expect.”
The disenchantment of some Arkansas Democrats with the direction of their party has led to some independent progressive candidacies in the 2006 election cycle.
“I feel like the Democratic Party has left the Democrats behind,” said Jim Lendall, formerly a Democratic state legislator who is running for governor under the Green Party banner. “If the Democrats would just nominate a candidate that could really fire up the Democrats, the Democ-ratic Party could recover. With the Democratic Party running as Republican Party lite, it’s hard to get fired up by its candidates and platforms.”
Jason Willett, the chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party, explains away such statements by saying the Democrats have a “big tent.”
“We’re not single-issue voters,” Willett said. “We’re not quick to judge or label people. We can agree to disagree in the Democratic Party. … We don’t have a litmus test like the other side does.”
Barth thinks a lack of leadership is causing the identity crisis among Arkansas Democrats.
“What has changed is that the party no longer has a highly visible figure who becomes an icon for the party as it did in that era with the big three [Clinton, Bumpers and Pryor] sharing ideologies — and it was accidental they did,” he said. “Now we have an era when that is missing, that leading mascot or mascots. What is left is the incoherence that is always there without something filling the void for the image of the party.
“I think it is a particularly troubled time for the party in that during that period while the party itself and candidates around the state didn’t share much in common, at least within the party apparatus there was a little more consensus because it was controlled by those three people who put people in who shared their views. But it has been a party without a leader for a decade now, and that is one reason there have been four or five party chairs since [Gov. Jim Guy] Tucker left office. It has not been reflective of anybody’s political views, it’s just been a mish-mash of views. There is no real voice for the party because there has been no governor who had an image of what the party wanted to be.”
Rod Bryan, an independent candidate for governor who calls himself progressive, doesn’t see much of a difference between Democrats and Republicans in Arkansas.
“When I voted the last time my options were Blanche Lincoln, who is pretty conservative, and the other was a borderline white nationalist with 18 kids,” Bryan said. “As much as it hurt my stomach to vote for Blanche Lincoln, I was voting for the lesser of two evils.”
As for the upcoming governor’s race, Bryan said, “When I look at a candidate like Mike Beebe, nothing about that man strikes a chord that reminds me of what it means to be a Democrat. Joyce Elliott oozes what I think of as being a Democrat. If the Democrats had any spine about them they would run somebody like her for governor instead of Mike Beebe or Bill Halter.”
Elliott herself says she has found it “difficult” to take progressive positions as a Democrat in Arkansas.
“Over the years, I’ve seen the party becoming more conservative,” she said. “So many of the policies I want to push are perceived as being on the edge of the party instead of in the mainstream of the party. But I know all of the policies I push for are those that will help mainstream America, families, students gain an education, working people who the are backbone of the party. I don’t know when those issues became peripheral.”
“We’ve been sold the premise that this is too conservative a state to run as a progressive,” Lendall said. “I think people who could potentially run have been told they can’t succeed as a progressive or liberal.”
That may be a result of “consultant-driven politics,” according to Barth.
“Candidates may look at public opinion polls that clearly say Arkansans don’t want progressive stances on issues,” he said. “But public opinion polling is very one-dimensional. It doesn’t capture the fullness of political candidates and leaders. We’re in an era where candidates are a little too scared to be themselves and too prone to listen to political consultants. You can see examples of Democrats who are progressive and who don’t always listen to political consultants when taking positions on issues. Vic Snyder is the best example of that. He wins in a district where some issues he takes stances on, voters would think the other way, but he wins because of the legitimacy and authenticity he brings to voters.”
Still, the Democratic Party of Arkansas plans to steer a path down the middle during the next election cycle.
“A lot of Arkansans are sick and tired of extremism on either side of the political leadership,” Willett said. “The people of Arkansas are looking for common sense. … Democrats always shared the values that are important, but going back 10 years, the Republicans have done a better job of identifying themselves. We’re not going to let them define who we are and what we stand for.”
Still, when Democrats define themselves, it is mostly in generalities, and they are careful not to give ground on social issues.
Lincoln, Pryor and Stovall stressed the importance of addressing poverty, education and health care issues. And all three defended their “faith” and support of gun rights.
Democrats are quick to point out the failures of Republican Party leadership on the state and national level as the primary reason why they expect to succeed in 2006.
“Because the Republicans control state government, part of our message necessarily has to be change,” Pryor said. “When Democrats differentiate themselves, it’s looked at as criticism. But when Mike Beebe runs, it will be against the 10-year backdrop of [Gov. Mike] Huckabee. That’s the context. He will point out how he would do things differently, and they do have differences.”
Gabe Holmstrom, executive director of the Democratic Party, says that the national Democrats will soon present an agenda similar to the “Contract with America” that the Republican Party used to gain control of the U.S. House in 1994. He added that the state party is “in the process of developing a blueprint” of issues to focus on in 2006.
The governor’s race, however, will “take a shape of its own,” according to Willett.
Barth said the image of the Democratic party “is in the hands of Mike Beebe.”
“To date, Beebe has articulated no real message about why he wants to be governor and what he would do as governor,” Barth said. “To build energy for a campaign, and more importantly, to build energy for more coherent governing, it is time for him to put more time into think-ing about why he wants to be governor.
“We know very little about how progressive he is going to be. There are two sides to Mike Beebe. Clearly he understands the role of government because of his coming-of-age story, and how important government was in giving him a chance. But clearly he has developed relationships with special interests who are typically opposed to that kind of government activism. It’s going to be a question of which part of that past comes to the surface.”
The state’s Democrats seem to be having trouble forging the common opinions and goals that are a trademark of a political party. As a result, the party is being squeezed by a Republican Party on one side that wants to steal its conservative constituencies, and the progressive third-party and independent forces on the other side that are trying to siphon off its liberal faction.
For example, Clint Reed of the Republican Party puts it this way: “I think local Democrats in Arkansas are at a crossroads within their ideological beliefs. Do they continue to support the liberal views of the Democrat[ic] Party (i.e., abortion on demand, more of an individual’s hard earned dollar going to the government, and same-sex marriage) and their leader Howard Dean or do they support the principles they live by which happen to be the central principles of the Republican Party of Arkansas. It seems that Chairman Willett is pushing the local Democrats to embrace the views of the national party.”
Meanwhile, Jim Lendall of the Green Party says: “The Democrats are sounding more like Republicans. Here in Arkansas you see the legislature and it’s been controlled by Democrats for all of these years, but the keystones of the Democratic Party, like women, labor, poverty, environment issues — these are issues identified as Democratic issues but even with a Democratically-controlled legislature we haven’t made much progress in the last 50 years. People are starting to realize this.”
The party likely will try to protect both fronts, but if it had to make a choice, Barth observes it is leaning toward the more conservative side and taking its traditional constituencies for granted.
“I think the party organization right now in its first few months maybe has not been quite as willing to be inclusive of people who are more progressive,” Barth said. “I think the biggest threat to the party right now is how when you look at the folks going to be the slate of candidates it really does look like a fraternity reunion party. It’s not a slate of candidates who truly reflect the diversity of the state. … That is a danger for the party, when people don’t see a face that looks like one of them, especially women and African-Americans, two of the largest groups in the electorate for Democrats.”
Elliott, who is a black woman, recognizes the challenges but still is optimistic.
“It is clear to me, while the agenda may not be clearly focused at this point, that the party knows it needs to have a focused agenda that will speak directly to how can life for average people in the state become better as a result of electing Democrats,” she said.