Columns » John Brummett

Borrowing, spending and feuding

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Why go public and make a spectacle of the state Democratic Party at the mere starting gate of a big governor’s race? That’s what I asked Ron Oliver, former chairman of the party. He’d been quoted on the front page of the Little Rock newspaper blasting the borrow-and-spend tactics of Jason Willett, the young man who ousted him a few months ago. The article had fueled more than a hundred posts on the Arkansas Times’ web log. The tone of those posts illustrated vividly the inevitable pettiness of small-time party politics. One poster said he would punch Oliver in the face the next time he saw him. He posted anonymously. These blogs are cyberspace Edens for bullies and cowards, though I repeat myself. At least Oliver put his name where his hard feelings were. Actually, many of the posts formed a chorus backing Oliver and criticizing Willett for gallivanting on the party’s credit card. Several seemed to come from people on the inside. To read the comments was to be a fly on the wall at a dysfunctional family feud. It was unseemly. I could only bring myself to check back every half-hour or so. Oliver told me he didn’t “go to the paper.” He said the paper came to him and that he merely answered questions. In parts of five decades, I’ve asked people to comment publicly and they’ve had the good sense to decline. Your best shot at quotable answers is when you encounter people predisposed to participate in what we in this business of eavesdropping and regurgitation call a urination contest, although we don’t call it exactly that. Oliver was predisposed. With the criticisms in the open, one must admit that it does appear that Willett either needs to decelerate his spending of borrowed money or accelerate his raising of actual cash. He decided to spend early to organize and fortify the party for the big governor’s race. With the executive committee’s acquiescence, he opened a bank line of credit of $150,000 and secured it with the promise of the usual half-million dollars or so in filing fees accruing to the party from state, district and local candidates when the ticket opens for primary candidacies in March. Willett already has expended $50,000 of that and may well be on his way to depleting two-thirds. He has run up charges at the finer hotels and at one of Little Rock’s trendy watering holes for young adults. He has leased a Chevy Tahoe and been reimbursed for extensive mileage. He explains that he’s entertained potential donors. He explains that he lives and works in Jonesboro, but must come to Little Rock frequently. He reminds that chairman is not a paid job. Whatever its personal components, Oliver’s complaint has a mathematical one. At the current rate of outgo, $150,000 won’t last nearly until March when those filing fees come in. Most likely, Willett is counting on help from the Democratic National Committee, whose chairman, Howard Dean, recently came through Arkansas talking about investing locally in a grassroots, red-state strategy. That might explain Willett’s stout defense of Dean’s incendiary rhetoric even as two of the state’s leading Democrats, Mark Pryor and Mike Ross, publicly distanced themselves from Dean. This spat will be decided in November 2006. If the Democrats win the governor’s office, Willett will be excused. And vice versa. Meanwhile, Willett ought to get the Mike Beebe sticker off the Tahoe. I’ve been touting Beebe as gubernatorial timber since Willett was in elementary school, but the Democratic Party should remain at this juncture open to all willing combatants. Willett also needs to leave the staff of U.S. Rep. Marion Berry. Serving a sitting Democratic congressman as district political director while also touring the state as state Democratic chairman risks conflict. I should think Berry would insist. He has a record of fiscal conservatism to protect.

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