Unlike the Polish Corridor, the Fayetteville Finger probably won't lead to a shooting war. It's almost as touchy, though.
Many in Northwest Arkansas are angry over a proposal to take Fayetteville from the Third Congressional District and, by means of an oddly extended boundary line, put the Washington County seat in the Fourth Congressional District. The Third District overall is strongly Conservative Republican, the most partisan region of the state, but Democrats are not extinct in Fayetteville, home of the University of Arkansas. Putting Fayetteville in the Fourth District presumably would help Democrats hold on to the Fourth District, the only one of the four congressional seats that now belongs to them. The redistricting plan had not been approved by the legislature as the Times went to press, but approval on a party-line vote, Democrats for and Republicans against, seemed within reach.
The Fayetteville Finger, as it has come to be called, is protested by the Republican Party and its affiliated media; by the Northwest Arkansas business establishment, and by most of the region's political establishment, including even some Democrats.
Steve Clark, the president and CEO of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, has been outspoken against the Finger. "And I'm a Democrat," he says. "I still give money to Democratic candidates." (He's also a former state attorney general.) State Rep. Uvalde Lindsey of Fayetteville, a Democrat, opposes the plan too, and so do the chairman of the Washington County Democratic Committee, Tyler Clark, and the (unsuccessful) Democratic candidate for the Third District congressional seat last year, David Whitaker.
"Redistricting is not about partisan politics," Clark says. "It's about one man, one vote, and keeping communities of interest together." Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers, Bentonville and Siloam Springs work together on government and economic development projects, Clark says. "We don't have a lot in common with the Fourth District."
Two Fayetteville legislators, both Democrats, are for the plan, Clark says — Sen. Sue Madison and Rep. Greg Leding. Clark says Madison is behind the plan, though she has said repeatedly that she didn't initiate the plan, and that a number of people worked on it. She also has declined to say whether she'll vote for it when and if it comes before the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs committee that she chairs, as the bill (HB 1836) is likely to do.
Clark says that Madison and Leding were both conspicuously absent from a meeting with legislators at Little Rock that was sponsored by Northwest Arkansas government and political leaders. "And she knew about the meeting. If she was not behind it [the redistricting plan] she would have been there." He says Madison has tried to get him fired because of his activities in opposition to the redistricting plan. Because of term limits, Madison cannot seek re-election to the legislature. Leding can.
One person clearly for the plan is the sponsor of HB 1836, Rep. Clark Hall of Marvell, a Democrat who chairs the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee. He's been rather close-mouthed, though, designating another member to present the bill to Hall's committee, which endorsed it on a party-line vote.
The leadership of the state Democratic Party is also blamed or credited for the Fayetteville Finger. State Chairman Will Bond of Jacksonville denies he's the mastermind behind the redistricting plan. "Redistricting is a legislative process," he says. "We don't have a vote." Without much prodding, he'll defend the plan, though.
As with any legislative proposal, "You have to get something that a majority can agree on and pass," Bond says. "Look at the Republican redistricting plans. They're all about incumbent protection. They make wholesale changes to the congressional map."
The courts have required that congressional districts be nearly equal in population. To achieve that, "You can draw redistricting maps in a lot of ways, and somebody is always upset," Bond says. "If we moved Sebastian County to the Fourth District [instead of Fayetteville] they'd be upset." As would many Democrats. Sebastian County is mostly Republican. Putting it in the Fourth District would increase the chances of the Democrats losing the congressional seat. Obviously, Fourth District Congressman Mike Ross is concerned with the redistricting plan, but the Arkansas Times' efforts to discuss it with him have been rebuffed.
That the Fayetteville Finger may look funny on the map is comparatively unimportant, Bond says, noting — correctly — that there are many funny-shaped congressional districts in America. "The legal touchstone is one man, one vote. This plan is the closest one out there."
Stephen Smith, a communication professor at the University of Arkansas, has defended the redistricting plan in a column written for a local newspaper. Smith is a Democrat and a former state representative.
"Fayetteville would be the largest city in the new district and would once again have a district congressional office, making it more convenient for our citizens to have direct contact with our representative and staff," he wrote. "More importantly, Washington County could now have two members of Congress dedicated to looking out for our interests in Washington. ... [W]e can have that advantage for Northwest Arkansas if we are smart enough to take it."
Publicly, Governor Beebe is leaving congressional redistricting to the legislature, but as the state's top Democrat, he'll be suspected of complicity if the Fayetteville Finger is approved. He can't run again, anyway.
People laughed when the Fayetteville Finger was first introduced; they're serious now. Somebody deserves credit for advancing the proposal this far, but nobody wants to take it.