I had many questions about a surprise Democratic gubernatorial candidate who announced last week and got to ask several of them earlier this week when I returned from vacation. The result turned out too long for my column space, so here's the result of my telephone interview:
announced as a Democratic candidate for governor while I was out of the country and I picked up a telephone my first day back to sound him out on questions raised in the press coverage of the 39-year-old Springdale native and former leader of the Teach for America program in Arkansas.
I learned that the 2016 election of Donald Trump had speeded up his plan to enter politics, just as it has energized many others. He thinks he can do something about polarized politics. His measured comments on hot-button issues have prompted descriptions of him as a moderate, but I was happy to find he wouldn’t run from positions that Republicans decry.
I liked his answer on what it means to him to be a Democrat.
Government is not the answer to everything, he said. But many in power today don’t believe government has value at all. Henderson believes, however, that government can play a constructive role and be a force for good. That, he figures, is a key element in what makes him a Democrat.
Henderson doesn’t label himself on the political spectrum. But he suggests he’s seen by some as a moderate because, having grown up in a Republican-dominated environment but also having some sympathy to contrary views, “I can see and speak to issues from a 360-degree perspective.”
He’s been careful in discussing bedrock Republican hot buttons – abortion, gay rights, guns. He won’t be campaigning on these issues. But I was happy to learn of the direction he leans. The adopted child of an unwed mother, Henderson says he understands, for example, the complexity of the abortion debate. He’s said at a minimum the state shouldn’t interfere in cases of rape, incest and health of the mother. But I asked him directly if he believed abortion should remain available legally in Arkansas and he said yes.
Gay rights? “I unambiguously support civil rights for LGBT citizens.” But does that mean pushing to override existing discrimination in state law or to add protections to the state civil rights statute? “Where we need to go further to see real equity we need to do it.” But he indicated that first there needs to be evidence of a problem in need of correction. Then, he said, “should we need to stand up and be counted, I’m not afraid to do it.”
Guns? He’s said in other interviews he’s a Second Amendment supporter and was more troubled by the overriding of local control in the campus carry legislation than the guns themselves. But he also told me that he didn’t believe there should be firearms on campus and “neither do leaders of those communities.” He said he hasn’t yet studied the ongoing debate of whether Arkansas should – or perhaps already does – allow open carry of firearms. He calls himself a moderate on guns. “Almost everyone in my family owns a gun,” he said. Not Henderson himself, however.
But these are issues Henderson says he doesn’t want to “lean into” because they distract from substantive talk of more important issues, particularly rural economic development and, most of all, education.
Here, Henderson proved more moderate than I expected. As a Teach for America executive, he’s been a player and believer in the school “reform” movement powered by the Walton family fortune and other billionaires. Teach for America sends inexperienced young college graduates with scant education training into impoverished classrooms under the theory that a few years of their idealism and energy can lift struggling students where calcified professionals cannot. That they burn out and move on is seen more as a plus than a minus.
But lately, Henderson has worked as a paid consultant to the school “reform” unit of the University of Arkansas on a project that seems to me repudiation of some Teach for America advocates. The Waltons have provided almost $11 million to fund a program to better equip current teachers to deal with the special problems of impoverished students. Henderson has some interest in helping run this program. He says it grows from lessons he learned in Teach for America. Maybe we do want some teachers to stick around after all. Maybe there is value in a career teacher.
This brings me to an element of Henderson’s campaign that troubles me just as the entire Walton-financed agenda troubles me. He has said his paramount campaign idea, the one with the most potential to make a difference in Arkansas, is to increase the attractiveness and sustainability of the teaching profession.
To me, this and so much of the work of the Walton-financed unit at UA, seem to single out teachers for students’ failure to learn. Teachers can make a difference. But we must point fingers, too, at broken families, poverty, poor health and hunger. The correlation between income and test scores is too powerful to ignore, which Henderson readily acknowledges.
“I do agree those factors play a huge role. Having said that, I think we just have to have a discussion about state of teaching profession. We don’t treat the best well. Fewer people are entering the profession. We need to elevate it.”
Indeed. And it’s too bad the billionaires have spread so much poison about teachers, particularly those aligned with the National Education Association.
I was happy, too, to hear him say the state needed to give Little Rock back its public schools “pretty soon.” The level of distrust in the community is a “huge obstacle” to the district. He also was skeptical about an idea pushed by the Waltons here and elsewhere to allow turning over operation of the district schools to private operators. “I don’t see it. There’s just not enough support to make it work.”
I couldn’t get him to say it was time to stop the proliferation of cream-skimming charter schools in Little Rock. But he did say two things about charter schools that have not been true to date in Arkansas: 1) that there should be greater accountability for charter schools in return for the privileges they are given and 2) there should be more of an effort to use them to reach the students with greatest needs (unlike some charter schools in Little Rock with disproportionate enrollment of easier-to-teach middle class students who were NOT being failed by real public schools).
Henderson was encouraged by Democratic leaders in need of a statewide candidate to think higher than a legislative seat he’d originally contemplated. His energy and rapid-fire thinking – tempered with political nuance – is reminiscent of many of the bright young lights of Democrats past – Bumpers, Pryor, Tucker, Clinton, Beebe.
But elections are about choices. As yet, Henderson offers little direct differentiation between himself and the incumbent Republican, Gov. Asa Hutchinson. He straddles money issues for now, not ready to say spending must increase for education generally but also “cautious” about expressing support for additional tax cuts given needs and potential economic downturns.
His promise to do more, faster than Hutchinson is nice. But it doesn’t strike me as a vote motivator on a par with, say, God, guns, gays or Donald Trump.