Columns » John Brummett

A rare spontaneous moment

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I had a good seat for the luncheon Friday of the Political Animals Club at the Governor's Mansion.

It provided a view of political spontaneity, now nearly extinct in this tightly controlled era of what the consultants call "message discipline."

From a center-row table about three-fourths of the way back in the great hall that Janet Huckabee built, I peered straight ahead at the speaker, Tim Griffin.

He's the Republican candidate for Congress in the 2nd District who was an operative for the national Republican Party and later a deputy in the George W. Bush White House toiling under Karl Rove. Conservatives love him.

Democrats detest or fear him.

At the table directly in front of me — in the foreground of the speaker — sat state Sen. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock, the Democratic candidate for this office, the one Vic Snyder is vacating after 14 years. Liberals love her. Republicans fear her.

Griffin was delivering standard conservative boilerplate, including a broadside on that dormant notion for organizing unions by mere filing of cards, or "card check." He said Arkansas, and the South generally, had long enjoyed a job-luring advantage by having few union members and a right-to-work law forbidding closed union shops, producing low labor costs. Those were advantages we needed to keep, he said.

At that moment, when Griffin said that a low cost for labor was something we need to continue in Arkansas, I saw Elliott turn her head abruptly. She looked across the round table at an ally and raised an eyebrow.

That concept that Griffin espoused — that we can lure jobs because our people work for less in wages and benefits — goes wholly counter to the essence of Elliott's politics.

As a former public school teacher and teachers union leader, she is devoted to the premise of lifting the state through the empowerment of individuals via improved education and with compassionate helping hands for the disadvantaged. She doesn't want Arkansas to be a site for a kind of domestic out-sourcing.

This is classic right-left issue.

Griffin thinks our precarious economy needs jobs and that it's good that we can attract them by offering discounted costs to those providing those jobs, including, yes, the costs of our workers. He sees human development in a kind of macro way by which the state attracts investment and employment by our relatively inexpensive requirements in pay and benefits for our people.

Elliott thinks we need to develop our human capital directly and value it more than that. If cheap labor is the secret to riches, then she wonders whose riches we're talking about and why Arkansas didn't get wealthy a long time ago.

She sees human development in a kind of micro way by which each individual is given reason to aspire to be valued at full price. She thinks it sends the wrong message to ask people to come here because our people work cheap.

Griffin thinks it's bad for the state if unionizing is made easier. Elliott doesn't support card check, but she doesn't begrudge workers the right to form unions.

It won't surprise regular readers for me to say I see it more Elliott's way than Griffin's.

It also shouldn't surprise regular readers for me to say I welcome and embrace this kind of relevant, productive difference.

I don't recoil at Griffin's view or demonize him for it; in fact, I understand and appreciate what he's saying, especially in a broader context of our advantages in the cost of living and in the cost of doing business — a context he sought to emphasize in a softening follow-up written statement his campaign sent me.

But what I liked most was this rare and revealing spontaneity in two competing political candidates.

They were not engaged in strategic tit-for-tat via expensive, misleading, exploitative and cynical mailers or television commercials.

He said from a podium what he thought and she revealed in a raised eyebrow from the audience what she thought of what he said, then elaborated for inquiring reporters afterward.

May there be more such moments, in this race and others, maybe even when it's Elliott's turn at the same podium this week.

P.S. — Here's another political development, also apparently spontaneous, that I witnessed at this event: The moment Griffin finished speaking, a woman walked straight to Elliott and handed her a check for $500.

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