Friday's election of state Rep. Darrin Williams as speaker-designate of the Arkansas House overcame two historical barriers. One, Williams' race, has been widely noted. The other, his deep ties to Little Rock (the traditional whipping boy of rural Arkansans), has not. That neither his race nor his place is an absolute bar to political success in the state shows that the political norms accepted across most of Arkansas's history are no longer absolutes in the modern era.
Make no mistake, race still matters enormously in shaping the social lives of Arkansans and the politics of this state, as it will for generations. White and black Arkansans live primarily in different worlds and have ongoing difficulty building bridges of trust across that chasm. Electorally, racially polarized voting shows itself in races ranging from school board to president.
However, last week's election for speaker-designate, the biggest election ever won by an African American in Arkansas, suggests that those patterns of racial division can be broken down. Williams' election required the votes of more than 40 white members of the Democratic caucus, many representing districts where President Barack Obama was shellacked in his 2008 race for president. Taking place in the same chamber where barely 50 years ago the House voted to fire any teacher or state employee who was an NAACP member, the outcome is a meaningful sign of social progress for the state.
Nearly as remarkable as the race of the new speaker-designate is the area he represents. Just after my birth in 1966, Pulaski County's Sterling Cockrill Jr. became the Arkansas Speaker of the House. He is the sole speaker from the urban center of the state during my lifetime. The absence of Pulaski County power in the legislature, despite the county's statewide voting power, is not accidental. Antipathy towards Little Rock has helped to organize Arkansas politics since the state's beginnings.
How did Williams defy the patterns of the past?
First, the speaker-designate benefited from the shrinking of the Democratic caucus brought about by the 2010 GOP tidal wave. The 54 Democrats left behind create a more progressive caucus than the bigger tents of the past. Moreover, the 11 members of the Black Caucus combined with the legislators from loyally Democratic Pulaski County to create a significant base for Williams in lining up early commitments in becoming his party's candidate for speaker.
Second, we know that when individuals work closely with an individual from another social group, attitudes often are transformed. Such positive personal relationships allow individuals to look past blunt social categories as they evaluate the person from another social group. The legislative process is one that requires the sort of close personal interaction that reshapes attitudes — about race or geography.
Finally, Williams' personal style is one that purposefully transcends racial and cultural categories. A securities attorney with deep ties to African-American churches, living in a racially-mixed neighborhood in downtown Little Rock, Williams walks that tightrope expertly. Comfortable wearing cowboy boots, driving a pickup, and attending the regular "Country Caucus" outings at a farm east of Little Rock during legislative sessions, Williams transcends his place to interact easily with rural legislators.
Williams is expected to run for statewide office, probably attorney general, in 2014. No African-American has won a statewide office or a congressional seat. Moreover, Jim Guy Tucker and Bill Halter are the only contemporary Pulaski County success stories in statewide races. Because voters who don't know candidates well often resort to stereotypes and old habits, the odds may be against him. But Speaker-designate Williams' most recent win shows that Arkansas's history may not predestine its future.