News » Cover Stories

Arkansas's 2nd District post-Tim Griffin

It's shaping up to be a real horserace in 2014.



Richard Nixon once said, "I am not a crook."

Tim Griffin said, "I am not a zookeeper."

Griffin is leaving Washington, though on his own terms, not unceremoniously like Nixon. And unlike Nixon, his tricks (and those played on his behalf) came before he held office, not during.

The 2nd District congressman's zookeeping reference came in a talk at the Clinton School in May 2007. He'd just resigned as interim U.S. attorney after the publication of an article about Griffin's involvement in GOP caging — disqualifying likely Democratic voters who've moved from their registered addresses — in 2004 in Florida. Asked about it, Griffin said he said he didn't know what caging was. That he had to look it up.

C'mon. The protege of Bush White House trickster extraordinare Karl Rove didn't know what caging was?

Caging was one thing. The more immediate problem Griffin faced was how he'd gotten the U.S. attorney job — through machinations by the Justice Department, finagling that threw U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins under the bus so Griffin could be installed.

Griffin wept during the talk at the school. He said public service "was not worth" the public scrutiny he'd come under and the cost to his family. He didn't know how long-term public servants could do it. He said he and his wife had not been able to enjoy the news that she was pregnant.

More bad press was to come: The DOJ's report a year later confirming that Cummins had been removed not for poor performance but to make way for Griffin. Emails that contradicted the DOJ's earlier assertion that Karl Rove had not been involved. It was at his direction that Griffin got a job that would launch his political career.

Then, in 2008, a swarthy Muslim socialist was elected president — or that's how a previously quiet and shockingly large faction of American society saw it. The wave of anti-Obama feeling in Arkansas in 2010 took that baggage and swept it to sea and Griffin into Congress representing the state's 2nd District. It did not hurt that his Democratic opponent was Joyce Elliott, female, liberal, African American.

Griffin was re-elected in 2012, his issues the stymied Keystone XL Pipeline and the iniquities of the Affordable Care Act. That his popularity had declined a bit — but only a bit — was illustrated in his loss of Pulaski County to Herb Rule, who'd been arrested for DWI during the campaign and whose campaign didn't show much verve, by 10,351 votes.

Griffin was rewarded with a seat on the House Ways and Means Committee. There have been no surprises in his voting record — he's voted the party line to reduce food stamp funding, taken an anti-abortion stand, voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. He is just barely to the left of extremist 4th District Congressman Tom Cotton. Griffin says he is most proud of his bill that "would have given a legal foundation to the president's delay of the employer mandate" (Griffin agreed with the president's action, but not his decision to do it without congressional approval) and of Ways and Means' efforts to lower taxes.

But after a difficult fall, there will be no 2014 race for Griffin. He and fellow House Republicans decided it was better to shutter the government for 16 days than accept Obamacare as the law of the land. During the House-Senate standoff, Griffin — a political animal and not a policy wonk — was roundly scorned for his tweet from the House cloakroom when gunshots were heard outside the Capitol: "Stop the violent rhetoric President Obama, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.#Disgusting." (As it turned out, the populace had not been driven to storm the Capitol by crazed liberal rabble-rousers. A mentally ill woman had tried to ram the gates of the White House and was fleeing police. Griffin didn't apologize, but he did remove the tweet from his Twitter feed.)

The House took its resistance to Obamacare to the brink, and for a while it appeared the tea-party wing of the Republican Party in the House might demand worse, letting the country go into default on its borrowing.

National polling showed the October grandstanding was wildly unpopular with people who had to work for a living, no matter which party held their allegiance.

Standard & Poor's estimated the shutdown cost the American economy $24 billion. Republican candidates across the country looked to be in trouble.

In Arkansas, Democratic polling showed voters favored dumping Griffin 49 to 44 percent. Griffin was going to have to run against a popular mayor rather than a single-malt-sipping opponent. He may not have coasted to a win.

Griffin said that none of that mattered. Once again, it was the personal cost of public service that was rubbing Griffin the wrong way. He announced that it was time for him to quit sleeping on his office couch and return to his Heights manor in Arkansas to be with his wife and two young children.

Maybe he'll return to "making the bullets" for Republican war rooms, as he described his oppo research job in the BBC's "Digging the Dirt" program in 2000. With 14 months still left in office, he says he has no definite plans. He'll surely be a powerful force in the state GOP.

As of this writing, former North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays is the only Democratic candidate for the 2nd District seat. He has the state party's support, so it's unlikely he'll have opposition in the primary.

Three Republicans so far have announced: Banker French Hill, state Rep. Ann Clemmer and retired Army Col. Conrad Reynolds. There's no word yet from the Green Party.

The Republicans have vowed to pick up the conservative banner — really an ultraconservative banner — that Griffin is laying down. Has Griffin made the way harder or easier for a Republican successor?

Our national attention deficit disorder means that the shutdown may largely be forgotten by the time the 2014 election rolls around. But what won't be forgotten — in Faulkner County at least — is the ExxonMobil oil spill that is an ongoing threat to land and water in Mayflower and the suffering of residents who've lost their homes and complain of lingering health effects because of oil contamination.

A month after the Mayflower spill, Griffin issued a news release that promised to get answers on why the pipeline burst but praised Exxon for its work in the cleanup and defended the Keystone XL Pipeline that will transport heavy Canadian crude across the U.S. to be shipped abroad.

If Griffin was tone deaf at first, it could be because he'd campaigned on the Keystone pipeline issue and he'd received thousands of dollars from the Exxon PAC.

But it didn't take long for him to pick up on constituent anger, and since the March spill he has made trips to Mayflower to meet with residents, introduced a House Resolution (that was referred to committee) to give Mayflower residents a tax break on whatever compensation they received from Exxon, and returned this year's $2,500 contribution from Exxon. He has gone so far as to express "frustration" with Exxon on the company's refusal to release its own studies of why the spill occurred, and has called on Exxon to move the pipeline away from Little Rock's water supply, Lake Maumelle.

Still, Griffin's support to move Canadian crude in a massive pipeline across the country has never wavered. Has that position diluted his support among the people of Faulkner County? Has he done enough? Republican candidates will find out.

Jay Barth, a professor of political science at Hendrix College (where he was an undergraduate with Griffin in the 1980s), wrote in a column for the Arkansas Times that Griffin would likely have won re-election, though the contest would have been "messy."

Griffin's strength was his ability, Barth said in a recent interview, to bridge the gap between the divided Republican Party. While he presented himself as a traditional Republican, "I do think he used a lot of rhetoric through social media to send signals to tea party activists that he was one of them," Barth said.

Hays, who is using his complete, rather patriotic, name — Patrick Henry Hays — in his campaign, promises to bridge the gap between Democrats and Republicans. The first thing he'll do in D.C., he said, is seek out a Republican congressman and make friends with him.

Hays is stressing his 24 years in non-partisan city government as his strength. His frequently repeated line: Garbage isn't Democratic and crime isn't Republican but nonpartisan problems that need to be addressed. He says mayors know how to work with their aldermen and city directors to get things done, while "inside the beltway they argue and call each other names."

Hays, who was considering a political race of some sort, was recruited for the 2nd District race by Arkansas Democratic Party chair Vince Insalaco, a longtime friend and supporter of Hays. In an interview, Hays said the government shutdown fueled his "anger, frustration, disappointment" over the "damage it did to cities and folks all over the country." Democratic polling mid-shutdown showed Griffin trailing Hays.

It was already known that he was going to announce for the seat before the surprise announcement by Griffin, who'd already raised $500,000, that he would not seek re-election. Imagine Hays' delight at Griffin's news.

Hays said the Republican refusal to fund the government shows "a lack of concern for the American people," including schoolchildren cut off from food programs, furloughed workers, folks fearful they wouldn't see their Social Security checks.

"I don't think I'm a Pollyanna," Hays said about the possibility of reaching across the aisle. "I can't believe the grandpas up there don't love their grandchildren like I do" and aren't thinking about the future. Like Republicans, he wouldn't have voted for the Affordable Care Act "as enacted," Hays says, but he said "an overhaul of our health care system is needed" and Obamacare's provisions of coverage for persons with pre-existing conditions and its reimbursements to hospitals in rural areas are good policy.

Hays likes to cite the Patrick Henry Hays Senior Center as one of his accomplishments, but the funding issues he would tackle as congressman in D.C. are of far greater magnitude. Besides his position on health care and his desire that the U.S. spend less abroad than at home — he expressed frustration "when I see the dollars that have gone to Iraq and I'm trying to find a $100,000 to build a trail, when our interstate system is clogged" — Hays is sticking to the take-a-mayor-to-Washington theme of bipartisan cooperation. His campaign is "to really let people know I'm running for mayor of the district. I'm going to take a little bit of common sense to Washington and export 24 years of working with people not caring whether they are Democrats or Republicans."

Ann Clemmer, the outgoing state representative from Benton, praised Griffin for his "common sense" leadership in the House Oct. 30 when she announced her candidacy for the Republican nomination to succeed him.

But Clemmer promptly declared that had she been in Congress in the run-up to the shutdown, she would have advised her "colleagues not to start a fight" they could not win and she decried "political gamesmanship."

That's called having it both ways, which Griffin also sought to do over the Oct. 1-16 shutdown. In August, Griffin was one of 80 Republicans who signed a letter to House Speaker John Boehner urging him to defund Obamacare in "any relevant appropriations bills brought to the House floor, including any continuing appropriations bills." During an October teleconference with random Arkansas voters, he maintained he "never wanted a shutdown." He said the Democrats, by not acting to undo a law that had been in place for four years and been declared constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, were to blame for bringing the government to a halt. In a caller poll, he asked listeners to vote on whether the president and Congress should negotiate a way to open the government or whether "we should pass whatever the president wants."

Clemmer has positioned herself as the states' rights candidate, saying Arkansas was "constrained by the federal government" from finding its own solutions to social problems and that "we've given up too much of our power and money" to the government. She also reminded voters of her social bonafides, saying she was proud to carry the anti-abortion bills the legislature passed last session and proud to vote to override Gov. Mike Beebe's vetoes of them, and her disenfranchisement bonafides, bragging on the voter I.D. bills Republicans passed. She wants to repeal Obamacare "if it isn't working."

Of all the Republican candidates out there, political scientist Barth thinks, Clemmer "may come closest" to resembling Griffin, at least in how she'll vote.

Little Rock banker French Hill out-pedigreed Tim Griffin when he announced Oct. 29 his candidacy for the Republican nomination: He described himself as a ninth-generation Arkansan, in contrast to the five generations Griffin claims. Maybe that's why his first name is French.

Nor does he ride a dirt bike — one of Griffin's favorite pastimes — so he's not exactly a populist type, though he touts his fishing and hunting on social media.

Hill is the founder of Delta Trust and Banking Corp. and has worked in Washington, as a legislative aide to the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, House and Urban Affairs in the early 1980s and later as senior economic policy advisor to President George H.W. Bush and deputy assistant secretary to the Treasury.

Not surprisingly, Hill wants to repeal Obamacare, which he described as "jobs-killing," and the Dodd-Frank legislation.

Stumping on the repeal of Dodd-Frank, the Wall Street reform law, is unlikely to ignite the passions of voters in, say, Perry County. Bankers object to the bill because of the "Volcker Rule," which bans banks from serving as creditors and investment advisors. His dislike of the Affordable Care Act sounds bankable — depending on how the law plays out, which will be crucial to 2014 campaigns.

Hill did not respond to requests for an interview with the Times, but to judge where he falls on the political spectrum, it might be instructive to note that he spoke at a rally for the Koch-brothers-founded Americans for Prosperity a couple of years ago along with Asa Hutchinson, who was quoted "nudging" Hill into the 2nd District race. So, he's no centrist. But, political scientist Barth says, "There's going to be some tea party folks who'll ask if he's 'one of us'."

Both Hill and Clemmer abandoned state races to do battle for the Republican nomination. Clemmer was going to challenge incumbent State Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson in the Republican primary for the District 22 seat. Hill had announced he would make a race for the District 35 (Riverdale, the Heights and Pinnacle Valley) seat currently held by term-limited state Rep. John Edwards.

Conrad Reynolds of Conway, the third Republican in the race, made an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 2010 campaigning on repeal of the 16th amendment and replacing the federal income tax with a national sales tax. He did not return a call from the Times.

Republican strategist Clint Reed says the 2nd District is going to be "one of the most competitive congressional districts in the country," and if Election Day brings out Democrats in greater number, the election will have "greater tentacles than the 2nd District race," impacting the governor and legislative contests. (Griffin's retirement has already had an effect, with Hill and Clemmer abandoning legislative races).

The 2nd District has traditionally been a battleground district, with heavily Democratic Pulaski County balanced by increasingly Republican surrounding counties. (Ouachita Baptist University political scientist Hal Bass calls it "bipolar.")

Griffin will play a "very hands-on role in making sure the 2nd District remains in Republican hands," Reed believes. (He added that Griffin had told him "unequivocally" that he was not running for governor, as some speculated.) But without him, Reed said, outside Republican groups won't be channeling dollars to Arkansas the way they would if Griffin were running again.

"Today I call it a 50-50 district. I really believe that both parties have the opportunity to win this seat," Reed said. "But it's a long way from even the filing period" and knowing who the final candidates will be. Whoever can convince the voters that they know a way to fix what everyone can agree is a "broken Congress," as Reed put it, will have the better shot.

Griffin finally decided to answer a request for an interview last Friday, though his aide Matt Wolking had responded to the request by telling this reporter that Griffin's office didn't take her employer "very seriously." The Times' Arkansas Blog has been hard on Griffin, who unlike some Republicans seeks no common ground with those he disagrees with politically.

Griffin nevertheless gets high marks for being approachable to constituents, giving out his cell number at speeches and so forth. He was mid-ride on his Harley-Davidson in the Heights when he stopped to call.

The congressman said he loves his job in D.C. and his decision not to make a third run was not taken lightly. He knew Hays was considering entering the race, he said, and he thought it only right to make his decision now so Republican hopefuls could prepare.

His children cast the deciding vote. He missed them desperately. Griffin said his son John, 3, who has never celebrated a birthday with his dad, had begun to ask him every time he left the house if he was coming back. Griffin said he and his wife, Elizabeth, began some time ago to debate whether he should stay in office another three years. Griffin's daughter, Mary Katherine, is 6. "It dawned on me how fast my daughter was growing up and when I added three to six and got nine. ..."

Griffin doesn't agree with Reed's 50-50 chances for Democrats in the 2nd District.

"This district has been right of center for years. ... I think 2014 will be a great year for conservatives and the Republican Party."

He believes he's leaving it in safe hands. "French or Ann or Conrad or whoever the nominee is will win handily," Griffin predicted, "but they're going to have to work."

Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

Add a comment