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.”