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Cartoonist seeks Arkansas House seat

Running as Democrat on GOP turf.


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It's a good bet that Wolf Grulkey's staunchly liberal editorial cartoons will become better known on his home ground of Northwest Arkansas in the next few months. His Republican neighbors will see to it.

A typical Grulkey cartoon, headlined "GOP-atine," shows an elephant in a suit and a robber's mask pointing to the slot in a guillotine where the victim's head goes, and saying, "You just place silly useless social programs in this neat little device and you quickly eliminate huge amounts of unwanted fat." But Grulkey is running for state representative, as a Democrat, in a part of the state that is strongly Republican. Most legislators from the area are Republicans, including Rep. Justin T. Harris of West Fork, an incumbent who is one of two candidates for the Republican nomination in House District 81, where Grulkey is already the Democratic nominee by virtue of being the only person who filed. The other Republican candidate is Lisa France Norris of Alma, which is Grulkey's home also. The new District 81 is similar to but not the same as the present House District 87, which Harris represents. House district boundary lines were redrawn after the 2010 census.

Harris has received considerable attention lately as one of two Republican legislators ­– the other is Sen. Johnny Key of Mountain Home – who run private schools that teach religion but that also receive state and federal funding. After a First Amendment group called Americans United for Separation of Church and State objected to public money for religious schools, the state Education Department commenced consideration of new rules for schools receiving public money.

Asked if this controversy is likely to come up in the District 81 contest, Grulkey said, "I can't see how it won't. Church and state should be separate." Will Grulkey draw cartoons about Harris if Harris is his opponent (as seems likely)? "I think that's a distinct possibility."

Grulkey, 62, does not make a living as an editorial cartoonist; hardly anybody does these days, when many newspapers are going out of business and many of those that remain are eliminating the position of fulltime editorial cartoonist. One of Grulkey's two principal outlets, the Lovely County Citizen, a weekly newspaper at Eureka Springs whose editor is a friend of Grulkey's, gives him a free subscription in exchange for his cartoons. The other, Bartcop, a political blog with a national audience, pays nothing, and is struggling to keep its own head above water. Bartcop has run the headline "Premier Toonist Wolf Grulkey is running for Congress" above what appears to be a campaign card that says "Wolf Grulkey, state representative, District 81, Democrat." It's because of Bartcop's national audience that most of Grulkey's cartoons deal with national rather than state issues, Grulkey said. (Bartcop is headquartered in Tulsa. Its editor is a former Little Rock resident who never uses his real name on the blog, though the name can be found at Wikipedia and other sources.)

Grulkey has worked at several newspapers, in and out of Arkansas, as an advertising manager and staff cartoonist, but now he runs a skydiving operation in Siloam Springs. A pilot himself, he used to fly planes that people jumped out of, but he says administrative duties keep him on the ground now.

Grulkey was born in Rhode Island, has lived in Africa and New Jersey, and moved to Eureka Springs with his family in 1962. He graduated from Eureka Springs High in 1967. He settled in Arkansas after service in the Navy.

Grulkey got into editorial cartooning about 10 years ago, when an editor who knew that he could draw asked him to do a cartoon to accompany an editorial. A confirmed liberal now, Grulkey says, "As a kid, I was for Barry Goldwater, and I voted for Nixon twice. You know, kittens are born with their eyes closed."

As a legislative candidate, he says he'll be talking about the need for infrastructure projects, particularly projects for which the work could be kept in Arkansas, if possible, and in the United States otherwise, so that the wages won't be going to Chinese steelworkers. He'd also like to see a system of veterans' courts, something like today's drug courts. A Vietnam-era vet himself, he said he knows people who served in Vietnam and the serious problems that some of them have.

Others may see his candidacy as a quixotic venture, but Grulkey says, "I think I have a chance to win. I think the Democrats statewide have a good shot at holding on to the House and Senate, and maybe picking up some seats. I hope this is one. All the Republicans are running on national issues, it seems. We'll see how that works out." The state Democratic Party is helping him, he says, and his own fund-raising is "coming along." He recently took his banjo and fiddle with him to a Washington County Democratic event, "and I raised $245 without even asking for it." Yes, he's a musician too. ("Premier Renaissance Man is running for Arkansas legislature.") "I play pretty much anything with strings on it," he says, but he's found the cello, which he's just taken up, a challenge.

He's run twice, unsuccessfully, for the Alma City Council. For a legislative seat, he must campaign over a larger territory. "I'm going to meetings all the time. I never was a big fan of pancakes or fried fish before, but I'm learning to like them."

Political buffs would love to see an editorial cartoonist in the House of Representatives, lampooning his colleagues. The representatives, it can be assumed, are less eager. "I'm sure there will be things in the House ripe for cartooning," Grulkey says. There always are.


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