Columns » Autumn Tolbert

Future is female

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The question that is asked all over the state these days whenever Arkansas politics is discussed is, "Who will run in 2018?" Who will take on Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway) and Charlie Collins (R-Fayetteville)? Who will take on Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin? Who will take on U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton in 2020? Who will be the future of the Democratic Party in Arkansas? 

With the exception of a couple of names of women being tossed around in Collins' district in Fayetteville and the announcement by Maureen Skinner that she is running for Jason Rapert's seat in Conway, I keep hearing the same old names keep coming up as potential candidates — the names of men who have run for office and lost after running as centrist Democrats, or "Republican Lites." No offense to any of these men, but seriously, Democrats: Why go down the same old road when there are so many eager women who would make ideal candidates and would appeal to the progressive, younger base that the Democrats ignore at their own peril? Criminal justice reform, marijuana legalization, public schools, workers' rights, equality issues — these are the topics that get the newly active Democrats excited. Yet, these are the issues that many of the former Democrat candidates shied away from. 

The Democratic Party in Arkansas suffers from a huge void of women in power. Just take a look at the state House of Representatives. Shameful. There are only three women representatives out of the 24 elected Democrats. Twelve percent. On the other hand, women make up 20 percent of the Republicans in the House, where 15 out of 75 are women. This discrepancy was even worse before the three turncoat Democrats defected to the GOP. In the Senate, two of the nine Democrats are women. Five of the 26 Republican state senators in Arkansas are women. At this rate, the first female governor of Arkansas is likely to be a Republican. 

I hope these kinds of numbers for the Democrats are a thing of the past. Since the election, women have been out front in the movement many are calling "The Resistance" that drives the constant phone calls to our elected officials, the organizational meetings, and the frequent protests to express displeasure with the right-wing extremists' war on women, science, immigrants, minorities, logic, reason, truth and just about every single category of people and rational concepts except for white men and fear. Nearly every event I attend or see in Northwest Arkansas is either planned by women, primarily attended by women, or women are at the podium advising the progressives on how to move forward. I imagine this is true in the rest of the state. 

However hard we fight for the world to acknowledge that men and women are equal and should have equal voices at the table, it is impossible to ignore the fact those voices are not the same. It just feels different when women speak about the things important to us. Bless Reps. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) and Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) and the other progressive men in the legislature, but they can only carry our water for so long. We need to be there alongside our women legislators helping make the decisions. It feels different to hear Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) speak out in favor of public education. It feels different to hear former state Rep. Kathy Webb speak out on child hunger in Arkansas. At least to this woman it does. And it does to some other women, too. A good friend of mine pointed out after we left a legislative forum in Fayetteville that even in the most progressive part of the state, there, in the front of the room, were eight white men that had been elected to represent areas of Washington County. Not a single woman. Not a single person of color. It just didn't feel right. 

Democrats are facing a watershed election in Arkansas in 2018. Women are working hard to get involved on the state and local level. Denise Garner is in the running for the chair of the Democratic Party. The Progressive Arkansas Women PAC is actively recruiting women to run for office. There is a real danger in continuing to run middle-of-the-road men who do not represent the more progressive values and identities of the changing party. It will take more than one election cycle for the Democrats to even begin to make strides toward regaining some of the power they lost. If they choose to play the long game and draw the progressives into the fold, the tide may begin to shift in the next few years. "The future is female," Hillary Clinton reminded us earlier this month. I sure hope Arkansas Democrats were listening. 

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