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The class of 2016 

First-time candidates outraged by Trump's election off the bench and into state and local races.

click to enlarge CROSSLEY: The District 41 candidate says he thinks "Arkansas can do better."
  • CROSSLEY: The District 41 candidate says he thinks "Arkansas can do better."

Nothing wakes a sleeping person quicker than a splash of cold water to the face. The election of President Trump in November 2016 appears to have been that cold dousing for progressive Americans.

Across the country, people who had never considered running for public office have turned their outrage into candidacy, and recent elections —including a near-sweep for Democrats on Nov. 7 in Virginia, with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam crushing Republican Ed Gillespie, and Republicans seeing their supermajority in that state's legislative body evaporate literally overnight — seem to suggest that the wind might be blowing against the party of Trump. Arkansas is also seeing a surge of new candidates from the left, most of them political novices who freely admit they're off the bench because of Trump's election. With a wave election potentially brewing for next November that could cost Republicans control of Congress, Arkansas candidates for offices from school board to the U.S. House are hoping they can surf that hoped-for tsunami, even in a deep red state. State Rep. Michael John Gray (D-Augusta), the chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, said that while the election of Donald Trump and the policies he has put in place has Democrats inspired to run, Democratic candidates he's talked to are mostly engaged by their repulsion at what goes on in Washington. "It's not necessarily just Trump," he said. "It's the bad policies or the Washington politics of doing nothing and blaming it on the other guy." Though the politics of running against "Barack Obama everywhere" has paid dividends for Republicans over the past decade, including in Arkansas, Gray said he believes it would be a mistake for candidates to run on an anti-Trump agenda. "People want to believe in something," Gray said. "I think really, if you're trying to change things, you've got to have a vision. You've got to have hope and an idea." Gray said that while he is "at best, cautiously optimistic" about Democratic chances in November 2018, he said the lesson from Virginia and other challenging special elections recently won by Democrats is you can't win if you don't run, and if you run, fight for what's going to make peoples' lives better. "What we learned from Virginia is that you go out there and run your campaign on your issues and on your solutions," he said. "Don't just run a campaign about how bad the other guy is, but a campaign on your vision of the future and how you want to make life better for where you're from or for your kids or for your neighbors. Then things do seem to cut through the noise a bit." Nicole Clowney, a Fayetteville Democrat running for Arkansas House District 86, said that while the election of Donald Trump wasn't that surprising, the immediate, organized response to the election and how the resistance to Trump's agenda has been sustained over the past year has been. "I think this year has brought a lot of anger and a lot of frustration," she said, "but it's also been really inspiring to watch grass-roots movements make that real change. There's no doubt that the election motivated me, but it was in that way."

Clowney has an edge: She's running for the seat held by a Democrat — Rep. Greg Leding, who is seeking a seat in the state Senate. But Clowney said she had never seen a place for herself in politics until she saw the work the Trump resistance — particularly women — have been doing since the election. "Just that hard planning, and making the phone calls, and dealing with elected representatives in that way that women have done so consistently for the last year," she said. "There need to be more women doing that as elected officials. I've always known that, but I'm not sure that the power of that was brought fully home to me until I witnessed what women have been able to do." Clowney joins Fayetteville City Council member Mark Kinion as an announced candidate for the District 86 seat. Another motivated to run, in part, because of the Trump election is Jonathan Crossley of Jacksonville, who is aiming to unseat Republican Rep. Karilyn Brown (R-Sherwood) in House District 41. Crossley, the principal of Baseline Academy in the Little Rock School District, said that as a person trying to help teach children civic duty, responsibility and respect for others, he believes America can do better than Trump and his divisive politics. "I think Arkansas can do better, and I want to be a part of the new wave of Arkansas Democrats that brings that better to the forefront. We're a generation that expects more, a generation that does more for our local communities, that believes in something really tangible and visionary." Even though he personally opposes Trump, Crossley said his campaign is about what he believes is possible for the state, not about the president. "I think that's a bad way to run a campaign, [and] that's a bad way to present policy," he said. "If it's always about the negative and what you're against, what's the affirmative? What are you for? What do you believe in? What's the vision for a better tomorrow? What's the bold action you're trying to bring about for a better tomorrow? If it's just about the negative, that's not a very inspiring message." Crossley said his message is that all Arkansans, regardless of party, politics or where they live, want a better future for our children. He'll reach across party lines to accomplish that, he said. "Today's rhetoric is all or nothing. What I want to do is help change that paradigm to where we can come together for a positive message and not just shun the other side because we disagree about something we saw in the national headlines. It's about Arkansas, not just about the national narrative." Gwendolynn Millen Combs, an Air Force veteran and Little Rock school teacher running to unseat Republican 2nd District U.S. Rep. French Hill, said that while she refuses to call Trump an inspiration, his election was "absolutely" her motivation for running. The organizer of the Little Rock Women's March on Jan. 21, an event that drew thousands of protestors to march on the state Capitol, Combs said that within days of announcing she was organizing the march, she met with local politicians who convinced her to have an impact by running for public office. A first-time candidate, Combs knows she's aiming high by running for a seat in Congress, but said that she did so because she doesn't believe she can address the issues she wants to tackle at the local level. She said she believes Hill is vulnerable. "He's making bad decisions. He voted against health care, he voted in favor of the tax plan. He's voted against a living wage for people in the past. His voting record is pro-business, pro-banker, anti-people. I think if that message is able to get out to people in an effective way, I think that it can make a difference." Combs noted the leadership women have shown in the protest movement against Trump policies, and said that has translated into a surge of female candidates nationwide. She said Emily's List, a website that supports female candidates, reports there are over 20,000 women nationwide who have announced they are running for public office since the 2016 election. Combs said she believes that reflects the outrage women feel over the misogyny Trump displayed during the campaign. Still, like Gray and others, she said a solely anti-Trump election strategy is a ticket to defeat. "We need to be pro something," she said. "That's an idea that seems to be known pretty widely. People are thinking about that, realizing that, and understanding that. That's encouraging, and we've seen positive things as a result of it." While Combs said she's optimistic about the chances for Democratic candidates in Arkansas next year, Trump's relatively high approval rating in the state means it will be tough for any progressive candidate to win. She said her approach has been to talk to people about their concerns first, and their politics second. "I open every conversation with everybody I meet by saying, 'What are the issues you'd like to see Congress tackle right now?' " she said. "I don't say, 'Do you vote?' I don't say, 'Who did you vote for?' I open by listening to that. Then I say, 'The reason I asked is because I'm running for Congress. I think that's the right way to approach anybody. We're all people, and we all have serious concerns.' "

Correction

The Walton gift to the University of Arkansas to create the School of Art, reported in last week's issue on philanthropy, incorrectly said the gift came from the Walton Family Foundation. The $120 million is coming from the Walton Charitable Support Foundation.

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