To Central Arkansas progressives, these are times that try men's souls. And women's too, of course. And all minorities.
U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder, the seven-term liberal light of the Arkansas congressional delegation, is not running for re-election, and many followers of Arkansas politics believe chances are slim that the Second Congressional District will elect a successor of comparably leftish views. Aspirants are not lacking, however. Five Democrats are seeking their party's nomination, and four of them resemble Snyder in political orientation. (Though, like Snyder himself, they don't shout their liberal inclinations.) But three of these are practically unknown, with the election imminent, and the fourth is a black woman. Arkansas has never sent a black woman to Congress. The fifth Democrat is more conservative than the others, and he's the best-financed of the bunch, the “establishment” candidate, expected by many to lead the ticket in the first primary. The two candidates in the Republican primary are, like all Republicans these days, proudly far-right. One, the favorite in that race, is a Karl Rove protege. From Vic Snyder to Karl Rove is a long drop.
State Sen. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock was the only one of the candidates who showed up for a forum sponsored by the NAACP, though Scott Wallace, a Republican candidate, sent a representative. “Nobody owes me a vote because I'm black or because I'm a woman,” Elliott told a black woman questioner. “I will see myself as a representative of the people. I know I can't please everybody. But I think I will have a unique perspective on what it's like to be an African-American in District Two. I've worked with black and white all my life.” After some talk about treating everyone fairly, the moderator, something of a provocateur, told Elliott “If you treat everybody alike, and one person starts out 100 yards behind, he'll still be 100 yards behind at the end.”
“Fairness doesn't mean you treat everybody the same way,” Elliott said.
Through her service in the legislature, Elliott has established progressive credentials sufficient to win the coveted Arkansas Times endorsement. She told a Times reporter that while no one owes her a vote because of her sex or her race, she'll need heavy involvement by women and blacks in order to win. The Second District is about 20 percent black, and most of the black population is in Pulaski County, the largest county, and always a Snyder stronghold. The other counties are Saline, Perry, Yell, Conway, Van Buren, Faulkner and White.
Elliott is unintimidated by the racial disparity in the District. “I'm just assuming we're all in the 21st century,” she said.
Told that some people say they're for her, but don't believe she can win in November, she said, “Democrats need to be careful that doesn't become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This district is heavily Democratic. I can absolutely win on the issues in this district. I've won tough races before.”
All the Democratic candidates attended a forum a few days later at Philander Smith College. There was little that could be called “debate,” since the candidates tended to agree when they took positions on issues, such as health-care reform. When state Rep. Robbie Wills of Conway, the putative front-runner, was caught off-base a couple of times, he tried to smooth over the conflict. David Boling, Snyder's former chief of staff, was the only candidate who scolded Wills sharply. Boling said he supported President Obama's health-care bill, as Snyder did, but Wills had said he would have voted against it had he been in Congress. Boling also said he supported the cap-and-trade bill to reduce pollution, as Snyder did, but Wills had said he wouldn't have voted for it.
Wills, who is the speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives, replied that “No one in this race has done more to improve health care in Arkansas than I have,” and cited his support for health-care legislation. He said he was worried that the new federal health-care legislation would require a $400 million cut in the state Medicaid program. Gov. Mike Beebe has expressed similar fears. But, Wills said, he wouldn't vote to repeal the health-care law. Both the Republican candidates in the Second District race have said they would vote for repeal.
As for cap-and-trade, Wills said the bill had been rejected by Congress and “It's not coming back.” He said he believed in global warming and the need for clean energy, “But I can't sacrifice jobs today for the promise of jobs tomorrow. Arkansas employers said cap-and-trade would cost jobs.”
Four of the candidates were firmly opposed to the “Don't ask, don't tell” policy for gays in the military. Wills hedged a little. Military leaders are studying the issue, he said, and “I think they'll recommend repeal. I'd support that.” Patrick Kennedy said that “don't ask, don't tell” was “the next great civil rights issue. And civil rights is the heart of the Democratic Party.”
Kennedy berated the other candidates for not taking as many or as strong stands on issues as he and another candidate, John Adams, had done. Oddly, Kennedy seems the most intense of the candidates, and Adams the most relaxed.
Kennedy mentioned his support of the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion. “We need Democrats who act like Democrats,” he said. The youngest person in the race at 27, he also said, “We need new ideas. We need new blood.”
Every year, the Arkansas Times conducts a “Best of Arkansas” contest in which readers pick the top Arkansan in a number of categories. Every year, Vic Snyder is named “Best Liberal.”
This is not an honor he campaigns for. “You never heard me use those terms very much,” he says. Very much? We never heard him describe himself as a liberal even once. Conservatives have succeeded in making “liberal” a pejorative. Arkansas politicians accused of liberalism usually say, as Snyder does, that they don't believe in labels. In Congress, and in the Arkansas legislature earlier, he didn't set out to be liberal, he says. Instead, “I've tried hard to be thoughtful and approachable.” He's succeeded, to all appearances; he's retiring undefeated. Allegedly, some polls showed that he'd be in trouble if he ran this year. Allegedly, the polls said the same of just about every Democratic incumbent in a state that voted against the Democratic presidential nominee two years ago. It says something of the high regard in which Snyder is held that even people who don't agree with his voting record seem to believe him when he says he's retiring because of kids, not polls. More than most congressmen, Snyder's life has changed since he first went to Washington. He was a middle-aged bachelor then. Now he's a married 62-year-old with four children under the age of 4. (Three are triplets.)
“I spent several months trying to talk myself into running,” he says, “but my heart wasn't in it. It meant too much time away from the children.”
He was a doctor before he became a fulltime politician, but he hasn't practiced medicine in years. He's not sure what he'll do now, but “I need to work to raise these kids.” The work won't be in Washington, where many former congressmen settle and take up lobbying. “We want to stay in Arkansas. We have family and friends there.”
Snyder won't endorse a candidate in the Second District race. “I consider them all great people. It shows what a deep bench the Democratic Party has.” He offers encouragement of a sort. “People can over-read the fact that John McCain [the Republican presidential nominee] won the state.” Snyder was returned to Congress twice while a Republican presidential candidate was carrying the state and the Second District.
Even so, things are bound to change politically, Snyder said. Three of Arkansas's four congressional districts will have new representation next year. “I guarantee that whoever is elected in those three districts will not vote the same way that I and Marion Berry and John Boozman did. A new generation of leaders will follow us. It'll be a different time.”
It always puzzled some that a person who voted the way Snyder did could hold onto a congressional seat in a conservative state like Arkansas. Before they gave up, Republicans hurled several hard-line conservatives at him, unsuccessfully. Art English, a political science professor at UALR, thinks that Snyder's “dignified demeanor” had something to do with it. Snyder is always respectful, English says. He doesn't say smart-alec things, even in response to people who say smart-alec things about him. (Some supporters have wished that he would snap back occasionally.) He's a Vietnam vet and a doctor. “People respected his accomplishments even if they disagreed with him.” There were no scandals.
English doubts the next Second District congressman will be as liberal as Snyder. Even someone as ostensibly liberal as Joyce Elliott is positioning herself more as a pragmatic candidate, he said. “I think whoever the Democratic nominee is will have to moderate their views. The Republicans will probably hold on to theirs.”
Like Vic Snyder, State Rep. John C. Edwards of Little Rock is sometimes described as “liberal” or “progressive” and he responds the same way that Snyder does: “I don't care much for tags.” Snyder defeated Edwards in 1996, when Snyder was elected to his first term in Congress. “He's true to himself,” Edwards says. “He stands up for his beliefs. I think the state of Arkansas has been well served by that.”
Mark Stodola, now the mayor of Little Rock, was also a Second District candidate in the Democratic primary that year. The 20 percent that Edwards got forced a runoff between Snyder and Stodola, which Snyder won. He went on to win the general election too.
That primary race was “one of the cleanest congressional races in the history of the state,” Edwards said.
“My old boss, David Pryor, told me one day, ‘If you run this race right, you'll be better friends with your opponents after it's over than you were before.' And that's how it worked out.”
Edwards even claims to have seen a playful side of Snyder, which is more than most journalists can say. In that 1996 race, Edwards said, Snyder would occasionally poke fun in public at himself and his two opponents, saying that they all got up and said the same things “like the three little pigs.” You probably had to be there.
When Snyder announced his retirement this year, some people called Edwards and asked him to make another congressional race. “I felt like the best thing for me was to continue my service in the Arkansas House,” he said. As to whether a Snyder-like Democrat can hold on to the seat, Edwards said it was still too early to say. He was interviewed the day early voting began, but he felt that people were only beginning to pay attention to the political races.
There are some who believe that a legislator's voting record is the most important thing about him, and there are some who want more. Herbert C. Rule, a Little Rock lawyer, is an old-line liberal. He was a progressive member of the Arkansas legislature when Vic Snyder was in college, and the legislature was even more conservative than it is now. He's not as upset over Snyder's imminent departure as one might have expected. “I'm very pro-Vic but he's not an activist legislator. He has not been a path-breaking congressman. His political personality is like Bumpers', though not as engaging. He's a great politician, though. He's in a district that should have tilted toward the Republicans the last two or three terms.”
While clinging to the traditional anonymity of his craft, an editorial writer confessed that his professional life will be considerably changed by Vic Snyder's leaving office.
“I spend a good bit of time writing what we call ‘St. Vic' editorials,” he said. “I must have done a hundred of them over the years. These are the ones we run when Congressman Snyder takes some bold, principled stand on an issue that's spooked the other members of the delegation – sometimes the other members of the whole Congress. Snyder being the only member of the Arkansas House delegation to vote for President Obama's health-care reform, for example. Snyder voting against the invasion of Iraq. Snyder, the only veteran in the Arkansas delegation, voting against proposals to ravish the First Amendment by banning flag-burning.”
“I feel I've pretty well perfected the form,” the writer said, “but once you've done that, they're not as much fun to write. And complimentary editorials generally are less enjoyable than the other kind. ‘Congressman Claghorn is dumb as a hammer, and crooked to boot.' That's what writers like to write and readers like to read, if they're on the same side as you.”
Snyder provides no amusing quotes to help the writer either, as did former senator Dale Bumpers, another liberals' darling. Snyder is earnest and unimaginative and maddeningly fair. Our editorialist was advised recently that Snyder was submitting a letter to the paper taking issue with one of the editorials. The writer was amazed. “How could we have been more adoring?” he asked. It developed that Snyder was not complaining about an editorial on himself — he never mentions those, one way or another — but one that was critical of a colleague, Rep. John Boozman, a Republican who votes exactly the opposite from Snyder. The editorial suggested that Boozman might be doing too much in the way of overseas travel, and it noted that Snyder was staying home. Snyder wrote that overseas travel was good for congressmen, that Boozman should have been commended, not called down, and that the only reason Snyder hadn't been traveling lately was family concerns.
Writing a critical letter to a strong supporter, to whom he has never addressed a favorable comment, in defense of a man with whom he's never agreed on a substantive issue — that's the Snyder style all right, and how we'll miss it.