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Democrats rev up leadership struggle

2006 governor’s race hangs in the balance, candidates say.

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For the first time in recent years, there is a contested race for chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, and when state committee members convene in Little Rock to vote next month, they will choose between two very different candidates. The incumbent chairman, Ron Oliver, is running on his record. His challenger, Jason Willett, believes the party needs to do more, especially at the grass roots level. Both candidates agree that their race will have major implications for how the Democrats approach the 2006 elections, when there will be open-seat contests for governor and lieutenant governor. “We are not organized from within the way we need to be,” said Willett, who lives in Jonesboro, where he is the district director for U.S. Rep. Marion Berry. “If we don’t change our approach, we will be let down in ’06.” Oliver, who is running for his third two-year term, does not agree. “Everything in the next two years will be aimed at retaking the governor’s office,” he said. “Every day I get out of bed, that is my foremost goal in mind.” Toward this end, Oliver says he intends to increase the party’s fund-raising base through increased direct mail and telemarketing efforts. He also is introducing the Democratic Strategic Initiative (DSI), a committee that would make recommendations to improve operations. “Calling for a strategic plan now, after four years, frankly is not going to help us win back the governor’s chair,” Willett countered. “I will call in everyone on day one, county leaders, legislators, constitutional and federal officers.” Willett’s main contention is that the Democratic party under Oliver has not made an effort to involve and communicate with the local county committees, auxiliaries, and elected officials who provide the manpower and soul of the statewide organization. As chairman, Willett says he would improve those relationships by hiring a full-time staff liaison to those groups, appointing vice-chairs to represent each congressional district, and opening an office in Northwest Arkansas, where the party is weakest. Oliver admits that the party “needs more coordination with the county committees,” but he contends that he has worked hard to make improvements in that area. “When I came in, many of the county committees were non-functional,” he said. “It’s a slow process, and we’re taking them one-by-one. We’ve managed to change some, but we need to get some new people in charge, some younger [county] chairs. ... I’ve put 75,000 miles on my car, traveled more than any chair. I’ve talked to them on the phone, but some [county] chairs are unresponsive.” For his part, Oliver would prefer to talk about the electoral gains that have occurred under his watch, most notably Mark Pryor’s victory in the 2002 U.S. Senate race, which made Pryor the only candidate to defeat a Republican incumbent senator that year. Oliver also points to this year’s gain of two seats in the Arkansas House of Representatives, and he cites Jimmie Lou Fisher’s stronger-then expected showing in the 2002 election for governor, when she lost to the incumbent, Mike Huckabee, by a 53-47 per cent margin. “When I came in, there were three Republicans and three Democrats in the Arkansas congressional delegation,” Oliver said. “Now it is five to one. By my best reckoning, 84 per cent of county-elected officials are Democrats. Five of seven constitutional officers are Democrats. The record is there. You can’t argue the facts.” But Willett responded that Pryor’s win was more attributable to the skills of the candidate than the assistance from the state party, and while there was a net gain for the Democrats this year in the legislature, he points to traditionally Democratic seats that were lost or were too close for comfort, as well as many incumbent Republican office-holders who ran unopposed. Willett also believes Fisher’s gubernatorial bid and the state’s showing in this year’s presidential contest help his case against Oliver. “If the party was more prepared in ’02, we would have won the governor’s seat,” he said. “We went from a five-to-six-point loss for [Al] Gore in 2000 to a ten-to-eleven-point loss for [John] Kerry in 2004. It’s time for a new vision to be put forward.” Oliver disagrees: “We turned out 40,000 more votes for Kerry than Gore got. Turnout was at an all-time high. ... The Kerry campaign and the DNC [Democratic National Committee] told us for a year we were a targeted state and would get a certain amount of money. We never got it. We did the best we could with the resources we had.” None of the state’s Democratic federal elected officials would comment for this article, nor would Attorney General Mike Beebe, who is widely expected to carry the party’s banner in the 2006 race for governor. Fisher, however, said that she is glad there is a hot race for Democratic party chairman this year, because it indicates interest in the future of the organization. That sentiment was echoed by Skip Rutherford, a Little Rock public relations executive and president of the William J. Clinton Foundation, who served as Democratic party chairman in 1989. “Competition is good for the party, and it is always healthy to have people interested in serving,” Rutherford said. “But,” he adds, “I think we always have to encourage and promote and attract young people. ... I have high regard for both people. One of the challenges for those of us who are older is we need to determine when is the best time to step aside and let that young talent blossom.” Oliver is 58 and Willett is 32. Neither candidate makes a big issue of age, although Oliver says he will have the support of the state committee’s young Democrats. Oliver’s involvement in politics dates back to Dale Bumpers’ campaign for governor in 1970. His professional experience includes six years as director of the Arkansas Burial Association Board, and 13 years as owner of First Arkansas Bail Bond, which he sold two years ago, allowing him to focus his full attention on running the party. Willett has a shorter resume, having worked alternately for Berry and U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln for most of his career. However, he has been chairman of the Craighead County Democratic Central Committee for the past four years, which entitled him to a seat on the party’s state committee, and he was a delegate to the last two Democratic National Conventions. Willett has been mentored by conservative Democratic office-holders and cites his ideological perspective as an advantage. He thought Oliver should have publicly distanced the party from this year’s ballot measures concerning gay marriage and term limits. “If I was chairman, I would have gone city to city to make sure people understand that Democrats would not be thrown to the wayside on moral issues,” Willett said. “I can’t see how the Democratic Party can stand on the sidelines and watch issues which may work in the Northeast be imported to the South. Like the average Arkansan, I am conservative.” Oliver describes himself as conservative on economic issues, but also pro-choice on abortion and pro-environment. “If people see that as liberal, so be it,” he said. “I’m not out of line with Democrats in Arkansas on education, health care, and making accommodations for civil unions.” Oliver intends to schedule the election for Jan. 22.

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