- Brian Chilson
- THE DEMOCRATIC FIELD: (From left) State Rep. Clarke Tucker, Gwen Combs, Paul Spencer and Jonathan Dunkley.
The much-touted blue wave expected nationally is unlikely to hit Arkansas this election cycle. Republicans have supermajorities in the state House and Senate and hold all seven constitutional offices and the state's six congressional seats. Democrats are expected to make gains in the state legislature, but not even the most hopeful party faithful expect Dems to retake control of either chamber. All the Democratic candidates running for constitutional office are seen as long shots. Ditto for most of the congressional races. There's pretty much one realistic shot for Arkansas to offer its own ripple in the blue wave: the 2nd Congressional District.
There, both national and local party leaders and members of the insurgent populist wing of the party see a golden opportunity to return the district to Democratic control for the first time in almost a decade. Odds still
That's partly because Democrats have performed better than expected in special elections in similarly red districts across the country. In March, Pennsylvania Democrat Conor Lamb scored a narrow upset in a Rust Belt congressional district that President Trump won by almost 20 percentage points in 2016. In April, a race in a reliably red House district in suburban Phoenix, Ariz., turned out to be surprisingly close: Though Republican Debbie Lesko won by five points, Trump's margin of victory in 2016 was 21 points.
The president's party is typically vulnerable during midterm elections, and the toxicity of Trump's personal brand among Democrats and many independents may motivate high turnout among voters opposed to the president. Trump remains very popular among Republicans, but he's not on the 2018 ballot. The same politics of division and resentment that Trump exploited to win the White House is now fueling intense enthusiasm within the Democratic base — as evidenced by the crowded primary field in Arkansas's 2nd District.
Four Democrats are running for the chance to take on Hill (Libertarian Joe Swafford of Maumelle is also running for the seat). State Rep. Clarke Tucker, who was recruited by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which identified the district as one the party could flip, is the clear frontrunner. The other three candidates — Paul Spencer, a teacher and activist; Gwen Combs, a teacher and activist; and Jonathan Dunkley, director of operations at the Clinton School of Public Service — each peg themselves as more progressive than Tucker and brand him as an "establishment" candidate. They also speak disparagingly about the DCCC, which has taken licks in progressive circles for forcefully inserting itself in Democratic primary contests. A victory in the primary for Tucker will end the same way it did for Conner Eldridge, Pat Hays, Mark Pryor, Mike Ross and other recent moderate Democratic candidates, they say — with a loss in the November general election.
A May 6 poll from Talk Business/Hendrix College found Tucker
Like many other Democratic primaries across the country, the 2nd District contest echoes the 2016 matchup between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.). But the four-way nature of the race somewhat complicates the "establishment vs. outsider" narrative seen in other places. The Sanders-leaning wing of the party has so far failed to coalesce around a single alternative to Tucker. Maybe that's because many Democrats in Arkansas are still Clinton loyalists and
Whoever prevails will face a candidate in Hill who is likely to have a massive campaign war chest, but also one who has done nothing to separate himself from an unpopular president. Hill voted to end the Affordable Care Act, supported the tax plan that provided an income tax cut bonanza to corporate America and voted against supporting disaster aid for Puerto Rico. That won't hurt him with the Republican base, but it could be a different story with independents. An April poll from Public Policy Polling — a Democratic firm — showed Hill's margin of support fell slightly when voters were presented with information about the failed attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the GOP tax cut bill.
In two elections, Hill has never won his home county. Pat Hays, the former mayor of North Little Rock, received 54 percent of the vote in Pulaski County in his race against Hill in 2014. In 2016, despite having little name recognition and money, former Little Rock School District board president Dianne Curry earned 50 percent in the county. Political scientist Jay Barth, who writes a column for the Arkansas Times, has imagined a narrow potential pathway to victory for the successful Democratic candidate. It would take a massive Democratic turnout in Pulaski County, which might be helped by interest in a crowded Little Rock mayoral race, and successfully peeling away suburban voters in places like Conway, Bryant and Searcy who've grown disillusioned with a party led by Trump.
Combs, Tucker, Dunkley and Spencer each say they're the candidate who can chart that course in November.[image-10]
Money is the root of all political evilPaul Spencer and French Hill attend the same church. They've known each other for 18 years, the amount of time Spencer has taught history and American government at Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. Hill is an alumnus of Catholic, and he and Spencer each have sons who are seniors at the school. (Spencer doesn't teach either boy.)
Spencer said he'd always thought of Hill as "sensible in a lot of ways. But after he got elected, I think a lot of his sensibilities went away." Spencer said he doesn't know why Hill, who was opposed to Trump in the presidential primary, "drank the Kool-Aid" and supported the president's agenda.
"To say, 'Go ahead and repeal and replace [the Affordable Care Act],' and pass this crazy tax plan and don't say anything about the travel ban? ... The only thing I can assume is the promise of greener pastures." Hill, who was a banker before joining Congress, had been
Spencer is running for Congress because he believes big money has corrupted American politics. Every major issue today can be viewed through that lens, he said. Take the Republicans' attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act: "That's not an insurance issue, it's a money in politics issue," Spencer said. "If you want clean water, you got to get the money out. If you want clean elections, you got to get the money out."
Spencer, 51, grew up in Steubenville, Ohio, where the steel industry dominated the local economy. "Everything was unionized — AFL-CIO, United Mine Workers," Spencer said. "When mills would go on strike, the bus drivers would go on strike, the schools would go on strike. I learned the value of solidarity very early in life. When you come from that
Spencer said his father, a mechanic in a small diesel garage, used to send him out to the highway with a five-gallon bucket to pick up coal that fell off trucks headed to the mills to use to heat the family's house. "We didn't live in good straits growing up. No one really did in that town. We didn't realize we were poor until someone around us pointed it out."
Drumming was his escape. Spencer spent years as a professional session musician in Boston and Pittsburgh, making more than he does now as a teacher. But he longed to be a professor and got his B.S. in anthropology from Franciscan University in Steubenville, where he met his wife, an Arkansas native. They moved to Arkansas in what was supposed to be a quick stopover. That was 19 years ago. Spencer and his wife have three teenage sons. They live on 15 acres in Scott, in a house they built together. They grow pecan trees and raise honeybees.
This is Spencer's first bid for office, but he's been an activist since
"I remember I woke up after the Citizens United decision and said to myself, 'This is a real piece of shit.' If you cut your teeth on the Constitution, you know how it's supposed to work. Then you see the potential for unfettered spending in elections, and you wake up in this cold sweat."
Spencer said he "never made a conscious effort to get involved [in activism]. It's just like you see someone drowning, you jump in and save them." He became involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement in Little Rock in 2011, lecturing the group on the same topics he teaches in American government classes — "the Constitution and corporate personhood and things like that."
His time with the Occupy movement led him to chair Regnat Populus, a ballot question committee named after the state's motto, "the people rule." It sought to put a wide-ranging ethics law on the ballot that would have limited the effects of money on politics. It failed to make the ballot after a paid canvassing firm did not gather the number of signatures needed to place the measure before voters.
Spencer later worked to influence the passage of Amendment 94 to the Arkansas Constitution, which banned direct corporate contributions to state candidates and extended the amount of time former legislators must wait to serve as lobbyists. (The law left a few massive loopholes, which Spencer has been critical of.) Spencer also worked with primary opponent Tucker on an ethics package Tucker sponsored in the General Assembly. Spencer said he admires
"What I teach my kids is that anybody who wants to serve their country can do it," Spencer said. "It shouldn't be predicated on the small nucleus of insiders from Washington, or the Heights for that matter, who anoint you. We shouldn't have to go through the tollgate of democracy to do what we want to do to serve our communities, and I think that's what the DCCC has become, unfortunately."
Spencer, whose website is cantbuypaul.com, has made the refusal to accept donations from PACs a
Spencer's fundraising has been substantially helped by his inclusion in the Great Slate, a fundraising campaign started by Tech Solidarity, a 501(c)4 organization of tech workers, largely from the San Francisco Bay Area. The Great Slate includes 10 first-time "progressive" candidates with day jobs, "an excellent campaign team, and a clear path to victory in a poor, rural district." In the first quarter of 2018, the Great Slate raised $753,865 for the candidates. David Simon, the creator of HBO's "The Wire" and "The Deuce," also hosted a fundraiser for Spencer and a few other like-minded candidates in New York and has contributed $4,000 to Spencer's campaign. Spencer had never heard of Simon before.
That fundraising haul has allowed him to hire a campaign staff of 17 and pay canvassers $15 per hour, in keeping with his call for a $15 federal minimum wage.
Spencer has advertised widely online and in print, but spokesman Reed Brewer said the campaign would not run TV ads. "The effectiveness of television ads in recent elections — especially primaries — has been proven to be marginal at best, and a waste of funds at worst," he said.
- PUSHING A PROGRESSIVE MESSAGE: Paul Spencer (left) talks to campaign manager Greg Deckelman (right) at the Spencer campaign headquarters in North Little Rock.
Spencer has rolled out extensive additional policy proposals. He supports Sanders' Medicare for All bill, universal housing vouchers for households with income of less than $54,000, the elimination of $1.4 trillion in student debt and establishing a system of banking within the U.S. Postal Service to reach the 88 million Americans who lack the minimum amount of money to open an account at a traditional bank
All of those proposals would stimulate the economy and pay for themselves, Spencer said. Eliminating the layers of profiteers that siphon away Americans' health care dollars before they reach medical providers — including insurance companies, lawyers, lobbyists, pharmacy benefit managers and advertising agencies — and moving to a single-payer health care system would especially be a boon, Spencer said, saving the country, by his estimate, around $500 billion annually.
Spencer has pledged that, if elected, he would only serve for three terms and then return to teaching and farming. That he doesn't have further political ambitions makes it easier for him to advocate for average Arkansans through policies that, while unconventional, would dramatically improve their lives, he said.
Meanwhile, Combs and Dunkley cite Spencer's position on abortion as disqualifying.
Spencer is pro-life. "I believe that human life begins at conception and I believe that an unborn child is a human being," he said. Poverty is responsible for some 40 percent of abortions, he said. "I can work to fight poverty; I have no desire to fight against the law that is already on the books now in regard to abortion."
Spencer said he supports the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal funds from being spent on abortion except to save the life of a woman or in cases of rape or incest. He also said he supports banning abortion at fetal viability, wherever "medicine determines." (The viability threshold is almost inevitably a political determination as well as a medical and scientific one. Courts have generally determined viability to be between 24 and 28 weeks, though some state legislatures, including Arkansas's, have successfully defined viability at 20 weeks.) Spencer said he supports Planned Parenthood and would not vote to deny it Medicaid funding.
Spencer said Democrats in Arkansas understand his position. Some have said, "You can't have any opposition to abortion, or you're dead in the water," Spencer said. "That [attitude] might work in Brooklyn, but it's not going to work here." He said he's encountered a lot of Democrats outside Pulaski County in the 2nd District who are pro-life.
- MARCHING: Combs (second from left) leacing the Women's March for Arkansas in 2017.
Marching onGwen Combs said she's running for Congress because she believes we need to return to a more representative democracy.
"I believe in government of the people, for the people, and we just don't have that in Washington now. I'm the only woman, the only veteran and the only [public school] teacher running for this seat, and I think that gives me the ability to relate to almost everyone."
Combs, 43, of Little Rock, is a gifted and talented teacher at Stephens Elementary School in the Little Rock School District. The school is 93 percent black, 2.2 percent Latino and 87 percent low-income. Questions her students asked her during the 2016 presidential campaign compelled her into activism, she said.
"Leading up to the election, one [of my students] asked me, 'If Donald Trump is elected, will I be deported?' And another asked
After the election, Combs read about the planned Women's March in Washington, D.C. "I was inspired by it, but it was something I knew I couldn't do as a teacher. I don't have the money [to travel] and couldn't take the time off." From there, she created a Facebook event for a Women's March in Arkansas, which an estimated 7,000 people attended.
The success of the Little Rock march inspired Combs to work to sustain the movement. She created a Facebook group, originally called Be the Change Alliance and later March on Arkansas. It was meant to be a clearinghouse for progressive Arkansas activists. That effort connected Combs to a trainer from Housing Works, a New York-based nonprofit that fights AIDS and homelessness, who taught Combs and others how to "bird dog," or as Combs explained it, "when you pester your legislator, and you do it with intense focus and with a direct ask."
During the health care debate last year, Combs
"We laid it out and tried to make it real to him because I don't think he has a clue about what it's like to be a regular, everyday person," Combs said of Cotton.
On July 28, shortly after Boozman and Cotton voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act without replacing it on, Combs filed to run for Congress
Politics is something Combs "never saw coming," she said. She grew up in southwestern Ohio, born to a teenage mother and a machinist father, both of whom were first-generation high school graduates. Combs left Ohio on a full-ride scholarship to New Mexico State, but she said she didn't have the support system to be successful in college at that point in her life and her scholarship funding ran out. So, she decided to follow both of her grandfathers' examples and join the military.
In the Air Force, she was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, where she was a communications and navigation systems
Even though Combs declared around the same time as Spencer, she's been far less successful at raising money. She had raised $25,760, spent $18,172 and had $7,587 cash on hand as of March 31.
"We can't compete financially," she acknowledged. "That's almost more golden to me because I think the amount of money that's spent on political campaigns is obscene, and it's offensive to the communities we live in and we're purporting to serve." But Combs said she's used to working on a shoestring: "I'm a teacher, I'm used to not having much of a budget. I grew up poor. I'm used to not having much of a personal budget. I can get stuff done."
Her staff is made up of all volunteers, all of whom have full-time jobs. That's what representative democracy should look like, she said. Combs has life experience that looks like the average voter, she said.
"I had a family member struggle with addiction. I had a family member die of suicide. I've had a family member homeless. I've had a family member unemployed and injured on the job. Those are things that really give me some perspective and allow me to relate and allow me to have some deep, deep empathy for people. If you're removed from a scenario, you can hear about it all day, but you can't understand what it's like."
Combs supports Medicare for All, expanding federal funding to ensure that all Americans get top-quality education from pre-K to employability, moving toward debt-free college, establishing a $15 minimum wage, closing gun loopholes, repealing the Dickey Amendment that prevents the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying the health impacts of guns and providing a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers.
Combs said she might not have entered the race if Spencer wasn't pro-life and in support of the Hyde Amendment. She said she would work to repeal it and preserve abortion rights. "When you talk about Medicare for All but maintaining the Hyde Amendment instead of working to repeal it, you have a situation where you might have health care for all, but not for women," she said.
How would she pay for the progressive policies she's advocated on behalf of? One idea: "Our expenses for nuclear armament are absurd. We could pull back on that and put money into areas that help people instead of endangering people," Combs said.
- Brian Chilson
- WORKING TO RESTORE 'COURAGE, HEART AND DECENCY': That's what animates his campaign, Clarke Tucker says.
The frontrunnerState Rep. Clarke Tucker said he first started thinking about running for Congress when the House passed the American Health Care Act last summer. Then he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. "The prospect of having access to care with a preexisting condition without dying or going bankrupt became a lot less abstract," he said.
Tucker said he's also running because he wants to restore "courage, heart and decency" to the political process. "It takes courage to stand up to special interests when you're in office when they're trying to put pressure on you, to party leadership and your colleagues when they want you to vote in a certain way. ... It also takes heart, because you have to really care about the people you represent and have compassion and loyalty for them. And decency is just totally gone from the political process."
Tucker, 37, is a seventh-generation Arkansan. He's married with two children. Tucker's father, Rett Tucker, is a longtime downtown developer. Tucker graduated from Central High School, where he was student body president, and later received degrees from Harvard University and the University of Arkansas School of Law. He
After winning a hard-fought state House campaign for District 35 against Republican Stacy Hurst in 2014, Tucker emerged as a rising star in the state Democratic Party over the course of his two terms in the House, even though the party was in the decided minority.
Though much of his legislation was stymied by Republicans — including a broad ethics and campaign finance package and a bill that would have made a spouse or dating partner convicted of
Tucker said his experience differentiates him from his primary opponents. "I have a demonstrated ability to get things done in a meaningful way for the people I represent in difficult political circumstances. I also have demonstrated an ability to win a difficult race in a tough political climate."
His opponents, in turn, brand him the establishment candidate and say he's too much of a centrist.
"I think there's a false choice right now between people who are willing to work with the other side of the aisle to get things done and people who are passionate," Tucker said, perhaps looking ahead to a general election battle with Hill for moderate voters. "I think you can be passionate and willing to work with the other side of the aisle. That's how I would describe myself. I think a lot of times [Democrats and Republicans] have common goals, and it's just a matter of getting them together."
If elected, Tucker said, he would not support U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi as party leader. "I've been frustrated with the leadership in both parties. I think we need to move in a different direction," he said. He sees plenty of common ground to be found between the parties. Two examples, he cited: infrastructure, including increased rural access to high-speed internet, and immigration.
Of the latter, he said, "I think most Americans want to have a secure border, and they want to have an immigration process that does not pose a security threat to people who live here. ... I think the overwhelming majority of Americans recognize that DREAMers are just as American as anyone who was born here. They have a lot to contribute to the country, and we need to have a path to citizenship for them and keep their families together."
- RALLYING THE TROOPS: Clarke Tucker speaks to canvassers outside his Little Rock campaign headquarters.
Tucker would like to close gun loopholes and extend federal background checks on gun purchases. He wants to see federal support for expanded pre-K and after-school and summer programs. He supports tuition relief for those who enter public service and wants Congress to pass a law to allow people to refinance college debt. "There's no legit reason" for it to be the only kind of debt you can't refinance in the U.S., he said.
Studies have shown that
Tucker has drawn criticism from his opponents for not fully embracing Medicare for All, but he said he believes "health care is a right." Instead of the single-payer plan, Tucker supports a plan from Senate Democrats Michael Bennet (D-Co.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) dubbed Medicare X, which would leave existing
"Everyone has the right to access quality, affordable health care. I think there is a lot of value in providing Medicare as an option. That helps close the accessibility gap. But where we are today, I have trouble forcing people into that route. We have, depending on the estimate you look at, between 150 and 170 million who get insurance from their employer. I think it's fair to say that some, maybe not all, of those people like their health care plan. I like the approach of phasing this in, especially with rural areas. We can learn as we go. Giving people more choices drives down cost."
Tucker downplays the role of the DCCC in recruiting him to run and helping him raise funds, something he's been successful at doing: Despite not entering the race until February, he had raised $505,412 as of March 31. He had spent $60,574 and had $444,838 cash on hand. So far, Tucker is the only candidate to run television ads.
"Over 90 percent of our dollars came from individuals," Tucker said. "People are excited about our campaign. That's what's driving it. My focus is on the 2nd District in Arkansas."
'It's not enough'Jonathan Dunkley's call to run for Congress came from his 9-year-old daughter. As he was doing her hair one day, she challenged him: What are you doing to make the world better? Dunkley said he reminded her of his extensive volunteer work, the nonprofit he founded aimed at North Little Rock's high school students in living in poverty and his work for the Clinton School of Public Service, but she said, "It's not enough, Dad, Trump is president!" Dunkley announced his candidacy Feb. 20.
Dunkley, 38, works as director of operations at the Clinton School. He lives in Little Rock and is married with two daughters. Born in Independence, La., he grew up in Kissimmee, Fla., just south of Orlando. He started college at Louisiana State
After college, he worked at ITT Tech, which he said gave him an insight into the predatory practices of for-profit colleges (and helped him pay off his own college loans). He also interned in the office of Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe and earned a master's degree in public service from the Clinton School. His service project at the Clinton School was with the Ministry of Education in Belize, with which he has continued to work on service-learning projects for undergraduates. After graduating from the Clinton School, he returned to the Beebe administration, where he helped administer American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. From there, he spent five years heading the John H. Chafee Foster Care to Independence program for youth and young adults leaving the state foster care system, which was part of the state Department of Human Services
- SPREADING THE WORD: Jonathan Dunkley visits with the members of Fairview Christian Church in North Little Rock.
In 2013, he founded International Development Services Inc., the nonprofit that targets North Little Rock High School kids who receive free or reduced lunch. The nonprofit works to help youth plan for their future and think in a global context. Dunkley stepped away from day-to-day operations of the organization last year.
Dunkley pitches himself as the most progressive candidate in the race. He said he admires Bernie Sanders and supports the Medicare for All framework for which Sanders has advocated. "Making money shouldn't be the goal of health care; the goal should be access to quality, affordable care," he said. He wants to increase federal funding for Pell Grants and work-study programs to move toward debt-free higher education. Raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour is another goal.
To pay for those initiatives, he supports legalizing cannabis for recreational use and taxing it. A tax on marijuana could generate billions of dollars, he said. He doesn't want to legalize other
Although Dunkley is critical of the Republican tax bill passed last year, he said he would not push to restore corporate tax rates to previous levels. "I think it's inappropriate [that Congress lowered the rate to 21 percent], but I'm not shocked. When we elect bankers and corporate leaders to Congress, who else are they going to look after but their buddies? But I don't see it beneficial in the primary for me to have that as my big issue."
Dunkley supports abortion rights. "My mother was 17 when she conceived me. I'm thankful she carried me to term, but I'm also thankful she had a choice to make and it was her decision. These folks who refer to themselves as pro-life, they care about the birth of the child, but talk to them about feeding the kid, talk to them about educating the kid, talk to them about housing the kid, you hear a whole different narrative [from them]: 'That's the parent's responsibility.' "
If elected, Dunkley would be Arkansas's first black congressman, but he said he hasn't made race an issue in the campaign. "I'm hopeful that people will see me over my skin."
Dunkley has lagged in fundraising. His campaign staff is made up of all volunteers. He had raised $19,845, according to the most recent campaign finance records. That includes a $10,000 loan he made to the campaign. He has spent $19,124 and has $970 cash on hand. "We're on a shoestring budget," he said. "Ninety-five percent of my effort is getting out the vote." He said he tells people, "If you vote and get me through May, we'll get all the money we need" because his candidacy would be a national story.
Dunkley said he's running for Congress rather than a local office because the national Democratic Party is badly in need of young rising stars. He looks up to Sanders and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.
"Republican-lite is going to lose in November," Dunkley said. Establishment politics don't excite the Democratic base, Dunkley said, and he views Tucker as "establishment as it gets. ... I just don't see him in tune with the average Arkansan."
Dunkley sees himself as part of a movement. "We're the future of American politics. If it's not me, it's the next generation of young people coming behind me with the same message. They understand we have emerging industries we have to tap into. They understand we're saddled with student loan debt. They understand that health care costs are unsustainable and outrageous for most."