Democrat with a capital "D" | Street Jazz

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Democrat with a capital "D"

Posted By on Wed, Sep 3, 2008 at 10:05 AM

I wrote this article a couple of years ago, and it was well-received. We don’t have nearly enough “uber-liberals” in office anywhere, in America. After it was originally published, a Northwest Arkansas based magazine (with a really good ad base) wanted to reprint the article - but without paying me for it.

I do the work, you write a check. I like that concept. Even though it didn't make it into the second magazine, it will go into my third book, which I am working on now.

But I digress. I hope that Smith’s example may influence others . . .

Democrat with a capital "D"
Lindsley Smith serves Northwest Arkansas in State legislature

Written by Richard S. Drake

Though she claims not to look at labels when considering Arkansas politics, there is little doubt that state Representative Lindsley Smith (of District 92) can be considered a solid Democrat. This is heartening to many of her supporters and constituents alike.

In fact, she describes herself as being an "uber-liberal." Smith has had wide academic experience before her present role of Arkansas legislator. Currently she is a Research Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Arkansas on Fayetteville.

She has also taught at the Summer Statesman Programs at Yale and Stanford universities, and a Visiting Scholar at several English universities, including Cambridge and Oxford. She conducts the Summer Seminar on Legal Communication and Cultures at Cambridge and Oxford.

She is also Faculty Advisor for the Young Democrats at the UA in Fayetteville.

The first-time legislator says that it has all been a learning experience. "You go back to your seventh grade civics book and you say this is the way politics is or how it should be, and when you see it in real life it is different from what can ever be in a book. Nobody ever writes in a book
about the procedure for choosing seniority, for example, or procedures for choosing committees.

"I teach political communication at the university, and in terms of the raw data that I would have to go back and teach that course is not in any textbook that I have ever seen."

Warming to her subject, she begins to talk about how seniority is decided. "It's fascinating. We went in, and they had a list of individuals by district. I am in District 92, so I was near the bottom. The people coming back get to keep their seniority level, so the only people who were drawing
for a seniority number were those who were coming in."

According to Smith, this was the second largest freshman class of legislators in the history of Arkansas. Continuing, she says, "They would call you by your district. I don't know what I envisioned, maybe something out of a Hawthorne novel, where you have a big oak box, and you reach your hand in, and you pull out a brass ring with a number on it."

But in reality, there was a tiny box, which Smith likens to a small milk carton, with tissue paper wrapped around it. Inside were 3/4" white tubes, which had caps on. The Parliamentarian would then take tiny pliers and pull out a piece of paper with the seniority number on.

Smith laughs. "It was fun, and different. I don't think that anybody would ever have anticipated that if they had thought about it, how you would have chosen seniority, that this would be the story."

Committees in the legislature are chosen within the various district caucuses. Legislators get to choose their committees based on their seniority number. Smith serves on Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development, and Public Transportation.

"I really wanted to be on either the Judiciary or the Education committees. I have taught students who were at the elementary level for the Junior Achievement Program, and high school level for the Junior Statesman Program, and I teach at the university level. I thought with that experience I could really contribute to that.

"Plus, as an attorney I have already studied the Lake View opinion."

She feels there may be several special sessions of the legislature called, perhaps dealing with Medicaid or highways, largely depending upon the actions of the federal government.

Even if the legislature is not called into special session before the next time it is regularly scheduled to meet, there will be the monthly committee meetings Smith will have to attend. She also will be serving on an "interim" committee, the Judiciary.

Smith says that one the biggest frustrations she faced during this session was, "not having enough time to do everything that I want. I was up reading till two in the morning, reading and studying all the bills, trying to work out if I could get certain amendments in.

"I'd say, "hey, this would make a better bill, would you consider it?' Even if I wasn't on the committee, trying to help with that."

She acknowledged that it is also frustrating trying to work with those in the legislature who don't take the time to read or study the bills they are voting on. She says that one hears of the reputations of those who do not read bills. And, of course, some legislators use their positions as a bully pulpit to push their own narrow agendas.

"I look at all bills individually," she says. "I am not looking at if it came from a Democrat or a Republican, is this an agenda, or grandstanding. I read the bill and see what it does, and take a look at the amendments."

In 1995, she worked on the campaign to change the Arkansas constitution, which is considered a cumbersome document by many observers. Though the attempt failed ten years ago, she is hopeful that the people of Arkansas may yet adopt a new constitution.

"I have never really thought of myself as a politician," she says. " I truly consider myself a citizen-legislative-insider."

While she is proud of all the bills she has introduced this session, there are some that easily come to mind when she talks about recent events. While in the legislature, Smith made a motion to amend the Arkansas Civil Rights Act to add sexual orientation to the list of those protected by law. "The sexual orientation bill didn't make it out of committee, but I was very happy to bring that voice."

The proposed bill would have outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation in the state of Arkansas. Those living in Fayetteville may remember how this Northwest Arkansas community was torn apart by a similar ordinance sponsored by alderman Randy Zurcher, which would have done the same for this community.

Smith's bill would have protected not just homosexuals, but everyone from discrimination. "It was an anti-discrimination bill. It was just saying, no discrimination on the basis of . . ."

She says, "I would look at it and say that discrimination is a bad thing." True to form, however, other legislators did not agree. Republican Tim Hutchinson, representing Lowell, was quoted in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette as saying, "The question is where do we draw the line for protection purposes? We can't protect everybody."

As might be expected, business groups were also against the bill.  Fifteen states plus the District of Columbia feature sexual orientation protection among their civil rights protections.

She speaks highly of Governor Mike Huckabee's rapport with the current legislature, and quotes him as saying that this was one of the best working sessions he had ever seen. In fact, she herself notes a good working spirit between both houses of the legislature in this session.

She also speaks very highly of the staff who assist the Arkansas legislature.

But what isn't being adequately addressed by the legislature? "I proposed a lot of equality issues. Citizen voice, equality, anti-discrimination are my big thing. That's why I was working on the Equal Rights Amendment, which failed in the house." She still expects the measure to be passed eventually in Arkansas. Sue Madison sponsored the same legislation in the Arkansas senate this year.

"People would send E-mails talking about the bill would make women ‘‘masculinized.' There is a lot of rhetoric out there that has no basis in fact."

She has also sponsored bills designed to amend domestic abuse laws to include dating relationships, bills to help the Fayetteville public library, a bill to establish the Arkansas prescription program, and to strengthen the rights of those who seek workers' compensation Arkansas.

She is surprised that the highway issue wasn't addressed as much as it might have been in this session.

She attempts to stay in regular touch with her constituents. "I think I've been back here every weekend except for two, going to different events, whichever ones I can schedule in. I send letters, whether they are communicating with the Attorney General's office, the governor's office, other legislators, or getting citations for people."

One recent citation she got passed was honoring Fayetteville's Community Access Television for its recent celebration of a quarter century of public access in Northwest Arkansas.

She also works on a weekly legislative update, which she Emails to anyone who is interested.

In addition to her work with the Arkansas legislature, Lindsley Smith has also worked in the office of the Arkansas Attorney General, the Clinton White House, and the Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute.

On a wider scale, she believes that the decision to open an office of the Democratic party in Northwest Arkansas in a good idea. "The Democratic party is going to have to do issue analysis more, as well. For one thing, down in the legislature, when lobbyists come up to talk to me, I have told several of them, cliches and assertions don't work with me.

"If you are going to come to me with an issue, you are going to have to come with data and research."

To mangle an old cliche, what do voters want?

"It depends. When you think about candidates, I believe it would be an individual who will be a hard worker, who will look out for their concerns, and their issues, as well as for the state as the whole. An honest individual who has sincerity, who reads and studies the bills, who puts bills in, and not just sits in a chair and doesn't do any legislation."

The good news for Northwest Arkansas voters is that Smith intends to seek office again in 2006. "I have learned so much, and been involved in all the processes. I feel an obligation. I'm having fun, and I like doing it. I know that I have done a good job, and all that learning and my intent over next year and a half to study the budget, and try to master that, as much as possible.

"So I had to decide very early on am I going to run again? In doing so, I am going to set my own syllabus, the budget syllabus. I have ordered whatever books I can get hold of." She looks at other state budgets, to see how they might be similar to Arkansas.

Inevitably, as with any elected official, the question must come, who does she draw inspiration from?

"My mind immediately goes to Paul Wellstone. He was sincere, a hard worker, and thoughtful. He has always been an inspiration of mine. He was a great loss," she says, referring to the plane crash which took the congressman's life.

And as for the Arkansas legislature? "If I get the opportunity to come back next time I know that I will certainly miss some who are term limited. Off the top of my head we've got Joyce Elliot, Jody Mahoney, the list could go on. There is a huge story right there, who will be gone, and what will be the shape of the legislature."

Hard work and sincerity. Two of the words that Lindsley Smith uses to describe so many others, also seem to aptly describe this freshman legislator from Northwest Arkansas.

Little Rock Free Press - 2006

rsdrake@nwark.com

 

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