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Visionary Arkansans 2018: Jared Henderson 

click to enlarge BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson

First, a bit of news for the politicos for whom it's already time to begin worrying over elections in 2020: Count Jared Henderson of Little Rock out as a candidate for the U.S. Senate or Congress. But don't take that as a sign that his political fire is dwindling. Yes, as the Democratic nominee for governor, he got walloped by Governor Hutchinson in November. (Henderson got 31.7 percent of the vote, while Hutchinson secured 65.4 percent.) That's a big gap, but Hutchinson was a popular incumbent; no one gave Henderson much of a shot to defeat him, particularly considering Henderson had little to no name recognition.

After 10 months of hard campaigning, meeting and greeting and stump-speaking across the state, Henderson may be beat up a bit, but at 40, with a decorated resume and a Clintonesque gift for making policy relatable, he has the look of a star prospect for Arkansas Democrats.

So what's next? He hasn't charted a path yet, but says he plans to "stay engaged in politics." He won't run against U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton or U.S. Rep. French Hill, not because he doesn't think they're beatable in two years, but because he's got a young family and isn't ready to spend 60 percent of his time in Washington, D.C.

After getting two advanced degrees from Harvard, in business administration and public administration, Henderson worked for NASA and for McKinsey & Co., the worldwide consulting firm. He returned to Arkansas to lead the state branch of Teach for America, with a plan to eventually get into politics. "But I was perpetually six or 10 years away until Donald Trump got elected," he said. "When that happened, especially as a new father, I said, 'We've got to get a good, competent, compassionate, inclusive party back in the state,' and the fastest way is just to get in and do it. And, yeah, we may continue to get thumped for a while, but there's not a faster way to make progress."

Why make the political leap into a race for the highest statewide office? Why not start in city hall or in the state legislature? "Whether it's right or wrong, in politics, as long as you're a credible and competent candidate, voters fit you into the box in which you're introduced. ... In politics, I think you have to take risks," Henderson said.

He concedes that he made some first-time-candidate mistakes. "I didn't really start to understand and build an operation that could raise significant amounts of money until June or July, but once we did, I actually started raising significant amounts of money, especially since I was going against someone that no one thought was beatable. If I had been able to start that a year earlier, we would've had enough money to introduce myself to the rest of the state. Would that have won it for us? Probably not. But would that have gotten me another 10 points? Very plausible."

For Democrats to succeed down the road, the party must invest in infrastructure and continue to improve on candidate recruitment, he said.

"My campaign built a field organization that really reached pretty far, but could've gone so much farther. We're rebuilding data systems as a party, so we know which doors to knock on and which voters to engage. As we rebuild that over the next 10 years, you could imagine that compressing some of the margins even more. It's going to take more money than we had. It's going to take a party infrastructure that brings more people in. It's going to take contesting every race."

If Democrats can make improvements, Republicans might help their cause, Henderson said, noting as markers Oklahoma, which recently elected a Democratic congressman, and Kansas, which elected a Democratic governor.

"I don't want the economy to teeter for anyone's political fortune," Henderson said. "But sooner or later it'll turn. I was running this year because I wanted to win and I believed there was a hell of a good argument to win. And I lost. Let the Republicans go do what they say they're going to do in the next few years. Let them cut another $180 million in taxes. Let them ignore that we have the sixth-highest prison population in the world. Let them kick the can on highway funding. We'll see if they follow through with this raise on teachers, but even if they do, it's not going to be enough. This profession is bleeding."

Henderson would like to continue to advocate for issues on which he campaigned. "Education, teenage pregnancy and rural economic development — those are things I'm passionate about and things I believe are really fundamental for building a better future for the whole state, and they're areas that are way under-resourced. You can also speak to them in conservative values. I can talk to my conservative family members on why these things matter and I can get them to nod their heads."

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