Spicy Senate race in NW Arkansas 

Experts in guitar, karate clash.

A rock-guitar-playing right-winger supported by labor unions and trial lawyers defeated a right-winger with Koch Brothers support in the Republican primary, and now faces a Democratic martial-arts practitioner who hopes to become the first Latina member of the Arkansas legislature. It's an interesting year in state Senate District 7.

State Rep. Jon Woods of Springdale bested state Sen. Bill Pritchard of Elkins last month, 2,784 to 2,614, after a spirited contest. In the November general election, Woods will be on the ballot against Diana Gonzales Worthen of Springdale. Worthen's greatest support so far has come from a political action committee, Naturally Blue, that was formed about 20 months ago by young Democratic activists.

Term limits are forcing Woods out of the House, so he filed for the Senate. Political observers at Little Rock foresaw a Senate race between Woods and Pritchard as one of peas from the same ideological pod. Both men have conservative voting records; both promised more of the same.

But a look at the latest financial reports of the two revealed striking dissimilarities in funding. Pritchard's contributions came from familiar sources for conservative candidates. Koch Industries of Wichita gave $2,000, the maximum. The Kochs are huge supporters of right-wing causes and candidates nationwide. The nursing home and real estate lobbies kicked in for Pritchard. (Jim Lindsey, the Northwest Arkansas real estate tycoon, gave $2,000 of his own money to each of the candidates.) The political action committee of Nucor, the steel company with a plant in Mississippi County, gave $2,000. The Landlords of Arkansas PAC forked over $500.

Two of the many things that conservatives hate are labor unions and trial lawyers. But look at Woods' report. The public employees union AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), gave $2,000. The Arkansas Education Association, the teachers union, gave $600. The Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association contributed $2,000, and individual lawyers gave generously on their own: Greg Giles of Texarkana, $2,000; Ralph Cloar of Little Rock, $2,000; the Crockett Law Firm of Little Rock, $500; Don Elliott of Fayetteville, $800; Paul Byrd of Little Rock, $1,700; the McKinnon Law Firm of Little Rock, $1,500; Thomas Buchanan of Little Rock, $600; Phillip Wells of Jonesboro, $450; Bobby McDaniel of Jonesboro (father of Attorney General Dustin McDaniel), $1,000; Jerry Kelly of Lonoke, $2,000; Sach Oliver of Cave Springs, $2,000; Frank Bailey of Mountain Home, $2,000; Brad Hendricks of Little Rock, $2,000, and Theresa Hendricks, a homemaker of the same address, $2,000.

Matthew Hass of Little Rock, executive director of the trial lawyers association, said that although people think of trial lawyers as Democrats, ATLA has given to Republicans before. But when it does, the Republican is usually a lawyer, Hass said. Woods is not. Even so, "We've been able to work with Jon at the legislature," Hass said. "He's a true conservative. He supports all of the Constitution, including the Seventh Amendment [trial by jury]." Pritchard, on the other hand, was the leading sponsor of a workers compensation "reform" bill that was actually anti-worker legislation, according to Hass. Many lawyers practice workers comp law. The bill died in a Senate committee.

Not a lawyer, how does Jon Woods make a living? It's not entirely clear. A legislative directory says, a little vaguely, "investments." His campaign website says he's worked as a banker, but doesn't say that he's doing so now. Wikipedia identifies him as "an Arkansas legislator and musician ... currently the bassist in Fayetteville rock band, A Good Fight." Though Wikipedia says that A Good Fight "has had success with getting their music on several reality shows on MTV," and is "currently touring," questions remain about how good a gig this would be. Most bass guitarists in Arkansas rock bands need day jobs.

The band became something of a campaign issue when Pritchard noted that one of its videos included the song "Whiskey 'Fore Breakfast." He said this was unrepresentative of the conservative Christian values found in District 7. Woods said he was an evangelical Catholic who'd never consumed alcohol, cigarettes or drugs, and he counter-attacked by pointing out Pritchard's $500 contribution from a West Memphis dog track. A few days later, A Good Fight was playing at George's Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville and Woods' brother, Dustin, also a band member, introduced "Whiskey 'Fore Breakfast" with some harsh words for Pritchard. According to one reporter, "The mention of Pritchard's name brought boos from the crowd and obscene gestures."

Had Woods responded to the Times' calls and e-mails, we would have asked if he chose his instrument because of another Arkansas bass guitarist/politician. Mike Huckabee served a decade as governor, before moving to Florida and becoming a high-paid conservative commentator on national television. He's still occasionally mentioned as a Republican presidential candidate at some point. And still rocking, as far as we know. But Wikipedia says Woods "took up the bass guitar because of the song 'Longview' by Green Day."

Despite Woods' support from lawyers and labor unions, he was generally perceived as running as the farther-right of the two candidates. The farther-right candidate is usually the one who wins Republican primaries these days. Will Bond of Little Rock, chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party, noted that after Woods' victory, he was quoted as saying that the day of the moderate Republican was over.

During the campaign, Pritchard criticized Woods for accepting the contribution from the AFSCME, which he called "a proud backer of Democrats across America" that had "recently endorsed Barack Obama for president." Woods said Prichard was trying to divert attention from his own votes for tax bills. Evidently, Republican voters' aversion to taxes was stronger than their aversion to labor unions.

One longtime political activist in Northwest Arkansas suggested that Woods was more elastic than Pritchard, better able to present himself as whatever a particular voter wanted him to be.

There's no doubt he'll run to the right of his general-election opponent, the Democratic nominee Diana Gonzales Worthen.

Except to those especially fond of the bass guitar, Gonzales Worthen's resume is the more impressive of the two candidates'. The granddaughter of immigrants, she's been an educator in Northwest Arkansas for more than 15 years, having taught in the Rogers and Springdale public schools and at the University of Arkansas, where she previously earned a Ph.D. in education. Her campaign biography says she now directs Project Teach Them All, a Department of Education grant program that trains people to teach English as a Second Language. She's also run a martial-arts academy in Texas and has a second-degree black belt in Wado Shinzen-Kai, a form of Japanese karate. She's secretive about her age, apparently greater than Woods'. She's a member of the sort of groups that right-wingers look down on — the League of Women Voters, the American Association of University Women — and says she's a champion for accessible health care, among other things. Her biggest contribution so far is $2,000 from the Naturally Blue PAC.

Though Northwest Arkansas is mostly Republican, it's still possible for a Democrat to be elected in Washington County, and Democrats insist they have a real chance of winning in Senate District 7. It's less partisan than neighboring Benton County, they say. Springdale has a big Hispanic population too, which is presumably to Gonzales Worthen's advantage, but whether a large number of them will vote is unclear.


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