In a perfect world — a world where cash and powerful friends didn't so often trump civic duty and ideas in the political arena — Democratic 2nd District congressional candidate Herb Rule might actually give Rep. Tim Griffin a run for his money.
The 2nd District is, after all, one of the last remaining Democratic bases in the state, with polls indicating it remains a left-leaning island in an increasingly deep sea of red. Tim Griffin doesn't seem like much of a fit for a district like that. Elected in the Republican congressional sweep in 2010 — the first Republican to hold the 2nd District's seat since Tommy Robinson in 1991 — Griffin is the only Republican congressional candidate in the state who has yet to break 50 percent in the polls. He's got a far-right record a mile wide. A star protege of Karl Rove, Griffin was up to his eyeballs in Florida during the contentious 2000 and 2004 elections, working in oppo research for the Republican Party there, helping lead the Bush team's efforts to stop the recounts after Bush/Gore, and engaging in what many have called vote caging in the weeks and months leading up to Bush/Kerry. In 2006, Griffin apparently cashed in some of that political capital, sliding into the office of U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas after then-U.S. Attorney H.E. "Bud" Cummins had been forced out by the Bush administration — one of a series of politically-motivated firings of U.S. attorneys that later blossomed into a minor scandal. During his two years in Congress, Griffin has voted overwhelmingly with the GOP, which these days means the far right. Of the bills he's sponsored, none have made it into law. One of his few claims to fame so far has been his "Red Tape Reduction and Small Business Job Creation Act," which only drew attention because it contained an embarrassing typo which meant that had the legislation been enacted, new government regulation on business would have been suspended until the unemployment rate reached 94 percent. "The Republicans have made a big typo in their latest message bill to nowhere," clucked the press secretary for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. "Looks like they should stop harping about 'red tape' and start looking for the white out."
Yes, in a perfect world, Herb Rule — one of the old liberal lions of central Arkansas, a somewhat quirky but thoughtful man who lets his progressive flag fly on hot-button issues like gay marriage (he's for it), Obamacare (good for the country), help for the poor (he's a long-time supporter of First Presbyterian's Stewpot homeless outreach program) and veterans rights (the fight over a veterans' center on Main Street in Little Rock was one of the reasons he decided to run) — would be a solid contender. This isn't, however, a perfect world.
The most recent Talk Business/Hendrix College poll found Tim Griffin at 49 percent to Rule's 28.5 percent. At least some of that gap is dollars and cents. A block up from Rule's office on Cantrell is a giant billboard featuring Griffin and his family, with the slogan "Fighting to Change Washington" — the first drizzle of what could be a torrent of ad dollars Griffin could pour on if he felt the need.
Meanwhile, Rule has based his campaign so far mostly on shoe leather: beating the streets, yard signs, bumper stickers and personal appearances. Rule's position wasn't helped much by a DWI arrest in Fayetteville on Aug. 9, with Rule reportedly failing a field sobriety test and refusing a breathalyzer test. Rule says he's "100 percent not guilty" and has vowed to fight the charge.
For now, Rule is letting the poll numbers roll off his back and refuses the suggestion that the contest between him and Griffin is a symbolic effort at this point. He says he's still in it to win, and can.
Born in Little Rock in 1937, Rule said he became a Democrat early in his life because of the party's willingness to adapt to change. "I'm a Democrat because — at least in the modern history of the Democratic Party, back to Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt — the Democratic Party has been more inclusive, including all people in the fruits of government and the fruits of our system," he said. After graduating from Central High in 1955, he was awarded a scholarship to Yale. On graduating, he joined the Marine Corps, and said he cast his first ballot for president in 1960 on board a ship in the South China Sea. "We didn't have much access to who stood for what and who was saying what and what the issues were," he said, "and I wound up casting my first ballot for Richard Nixon. I've voted for some winners and some losers, but that is the only vote I've cast for a Republican candidate for president."
After leaving the Marine Corps, Rule returned to Arkansas and graduated in the top of his class, his resume says, from the UA law school in 1964, signing on with Little Rock's Rose Law Firm soon after passing the bar. Rule's first foray into politics was in 1966, when he ran against the powerful, cigar-chomping state Rep. Paul Van Dalsem of Perry County, who had been forced to run in Pulaski County by a U.S. Supreme Court decision that divided state legislative districts for the first time by population, not on county lines. Van Dalsem had made a speech in 1963 in which he said that when a woman in Perry County begins meddling in politics, "we get her pregnant and keep her barefoot." That didn't sit well with the female voters of his new, more cosmopolitan district. Rule saw an opening, ran on a moderate-to-liberal platform and won. He wound up serving two terms in the legislature, but decided against a third. Rule's other foray into politics was as a member of the Little Rock School Board from 1976 to 1982. Since then, he's been practicing at Rose Law Firm, and has developed a passion for Arkansas-made furniture and art.
Rule said that he decided to get back into politics when it appeared that no Democrat was going to run against Tim Griffin. The day before the March 1 filing deadline, after Little Rock lawyer Jay Martin had made a last-minute decision not to run and while rumors were still swirling over whether former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter or Democratic Party chair Will Bond would throw his hat into the ring, Rule filed, assuring a contested primary for the Democratic nomination if another candidate had decided to pull the trigger. No one did, leaving Rule the sole contender. Though Griffin won in 2010 at least partly due to the expensive contested primary that left eventual Democratic nominee Joyce Elliott bruised before the general election even started, Rule was unapologetic. As Max Brantley of the Arkansas Blog wrote of his conversation with Rule the day he filed: "If the Democrats want a cleared field for this primary, said Rule, there's an easy solution. 'Tell the Washington power brokers to tell their hand-picked candidate to get out of the race?' I asked. 'Did I say that?' Rule responded. 'If you write it, say I said it.' "
Part of his decision to run, Rule said, was the seeming inability of Democrats and Republicans in Congress to work together. He sees Griffin as partially to blame.
"I just felt like the country and Congress was in a bad way," he said. "Tim Griffin is one of the regulars who has just absolutely stonewalled everything, saying, 'It's my way or the highway.' That isn't, in my experience as a lawyer and as a legislator, the way you get things done. You have to talk and listen. You have to find a way to harmonize what's best for all."
Though many see Washington circa 2012 as nastier than it's ever been, Rule said that politics has always moved in cycles, waxing and waning between "very, very contentious and negative, all-out attack mode" and a style more related to discussing the issues. Right now, the "contentious" style of politics is at a high ebb, which Rule said can make otherwise good candidates reluctant to seek office.
"I think [potential candidates] are more hesitant now, because of the risk they see of exposing themselves to a lot of negative talk — a lot of challenges and bad conversations," he said. "They see that government, both the local and at the national level, is contentious. A lot of people just don't have that zest for getting in a contest and exposing themselves personally. ... Everybody has got their own way to go, so here I am, giving it a shot."
Rule's campaign manager, Adam Fogleman, is 30 years old. He's good-looking, smart and solidly Democratic, you'll likely be hearing more about Fogleman's own political ambitions in coming years. For now, though, he's helping steer Rule's ship from an East German-gray office in the back of a strip mall on Cantrell. A young attorney who was practicing in Jonesboro before signing on with the campaign, Fogleman said he got involved by chance. On hearing that Rule had decided to make a run against Griffin, Fogleman said he mentioned to a friend that it might be a fun race to work on.
"Herb's got a long reputation in Central Arkansas and is one of the best lawyers in town," Fogleman said. "He's not scared of a fight. ... I mentioned it to a friend, and eventually word got back to Herb and he called me and said, 'So I hear you think it would be fun?' We talked, and I came to work for him."
Even though the state has gone increasingly Republican in recent years, Fogleman said the 2nd District is "still reasonable." He's a realist, however, and has seen Rule's poll numbers.
"It is an uphill battle, but there's still a way forward: Outwork the other guy," Fogleman said. "Polls aren't fact. The only poll that really matters is the one that comes as a result of election day. That's the one we're going to rely on."
Rule is similarly optimistic. He said he's firmly convinced that the public will eventually decide which candidate is more sympathetic to their needs, and will vote accordingly. "Who is more likely to do things that follow what they believe and their basic core principals and ideals?" Rule said. "I have confidence that, at bottom, Arkansans are wholeheartedly for openness. They're for everybody having a chance to participate. They're in favor of helping people with a hand up, and helping people to better themselves."
Hendrix College political science professor Jay Barth said that Tim Griffin could be beaten by the right candidate, but he doesn't believe that candidate is Herb Rule.
Barth called Griffin a polarizing figure due to his history, especially for Democrats. Like the 2010 election, this one is likely to be definded by anti-incumbent sentiment among voters. The right candidate, Barth said, would have had a base of support outside of Little Rock and access to fundraising resources in order to take advantage of those factors.
"There were a couple of candidates out there who had some of those attributes and who would have made this quite an interesting race," he said. "I'm not sure they would have won, but there was a path to victory there. For Mr. Rule, a lot of things aren't part of that equation. First off, the resources haven't been there. Secondly, he's decidedly a Little Rock candidate. You can't get more Little Rock, in some ways, than Herb Rule."
Barth said Jay Martin's last-minute decision not to run set off a "scramble" among potential candidates, with names like Shane Broadway, Will Bond and Mark Stodola surfacing.
"By that point, Herb was already in the race, and people became less likely to get in because they knew they'd face not just the general election but a primary," Barth said. "That was one problem. Then I think there were others who just had obstacles come along — the timing just wasn't right. I think there were some who were concerned that to win that race, they were going to have to get folks who voted for a Republican at the top of the ticket to vote Democratic the next line down."
Barth said while it's pretty much "inevitable" that Republicans will make a clean sweep of the state's congressional elections this November, Democrats clearly see the 2nd District's Democratic leanings as their best path back to Congress. The issue in 2012 for Barth is not whether Griffin will beat Herb Rule, but how badly. On that could rest Democratic hopes of retaking the seat in the future.
"The problematic, worrisome thing for Democrats is that if Griffin wins as easily as it appears he will," Barth said, "it may get harder to convince [the National Democratic Party] to put money into the district in the future, because there will be a perception that it's unwinnable."
Will Bond, chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party, said that the polling that's been done leading up to the race shows that Griffin is vulnerable because of his support for the Ryan budget and other Republican issues. Bond refused to comment on his own consideration of running for the seat, saying only that "significant recruitment efforts were made, some more public than others." Rule, Bond said, was the one who stepped forward to run, and the party stands behind him. He believes the race is still potentially winnable.
"Obviously it's time for Herb to get aggressive and to highlight the differences between him and Mr. Griffin," he said. "There's a lot of material to work with, and polling consistently shows him to be vulnerable."
One of the biggest differences is the amount of money raised. Through June 30, Rule had raised $61,054, more than half of that from his own pocket. Griffin had raised $1.3 million, a third of that from political action committees.
Asked about his current finances, Rule said he didn't know specifics. "I don't know how much money I have. I'm the one who tries to raise it, but I don't know what the balance is." He said he'd heard Griffin was "keeping his powder dry" while working Northwest Arkansas for donations "in anticipation of the 2014 election cycle."
Last Saturday night, Rule and a small group of supporters turned out for the Arkansas Sounds Music Festival near the River Market in downtown Little Rock, ready to wave signs and pump hands for votes. Rule seemed to have rarely slowed down in the past three days, ping-ponging from one event to another, working the phones, pounding the pavement, trying to close the gulf between him and Griffin by sheer force of will. In public, he's personable, smart and knows how to work a crowd, slipping easily into politician mode, which he hadn't really needed for the past 30-plus years. In private, Rule is often soft-spoken and thoughtful, taking long pauses and prone to spinning off on winding answers that include everything from early Arkansas history to the evolution of the tax code since World War I.
"We haven't heard much from Griffin at this point," Rule said. "He has gone around and talked to editors and had some pieces published in the county newspapers, the weeklies in the district, over the past week or two." Rule had been similarly brief when commenting about the DWI charges against him: "I'm fighting it, not guilty, and that's it," he said.
"I think people are fair-minded, and understand that's a contested charge."
The first public debate between Griffin and Rule (and below-the-statistical-radar candidates Chris Hayes, the Libertarian Party candidate, and Barbara Ward, the Green Party candidate) will be held Oct. 23 on AETN, and Rule seems determined to take the gloves off. Earlier in the week, at a candidates' forum in Maumelle featuring short speeches by Rule and Griffin, Rule — after making a truly groan-inducing joke about not being able to find a crystal on Crystal Hill, and spontaneously bringing up the "incorrect charges of the DWI in Fayetteville" — followed up a mild, glad-handing speech by the incumbent by going hard after Griffin's record and history, saying that Griffin's D.C. office has spent $37,000 more this year than the office of the next-biggest-spending Arkansas Congressman and suggesting Griffin had received a sweetheart deal on his mortgage.
It clearly wasn't his crowd. At a table in the back, a group of women came as close to heckling as you can probably get away with at a suit-and-tie function in Maumelle, taking quiet but clearly audible exception during Rule's speech to many of his criticisms of Griffin. Rule either didn't hear them, or didn't care.
"I'm going to work for all the people," he told the group. "Tim Griffin is the chair for Governor Romney in Arkansas. I'm not just going to work for 47 percent of the people."
When a reporter walked up to the rally point for Rule and his supporters before they began working the Arkansas Sounds Festival, Rule was brusque, all business, shaking my hand and telling me thanks for stopping by in what sounded a lot like a brush-off. I couldn't tell if that was because he had his game face on and was ready to get campaigning, or because he'd just gotten tired of being asked, in one way or another, whether he really believes he can do the near-impossible and win. There's really no way to talk about a 20-point gap in the polls a month out from an election without implying that the man whose name is on that poll might well be wasting his time, money and energy.
"I think the votes are out there," he'd told me when I'd asked yet again the day before, "if I can just get around and be in contact with people and let them know what I stand for."
Whatever the case, it was fairly clear that Rule didn't particularly want me tagging along that night as he worked the crowd. And so I followed him to the end of the block and then let him go on.
When he walks, Rule has the stride and posture of a much younger man — the bearing of the high school athlete he once was and the crusader he wants to be. He walks like a man who knows who he is, even if most of the people around him probably don't. Later that night, I heard a woman tell Adam Fogleman — apparently seriously — that the first time she saw the signs for Herb Rule, she assumed they were for the campaign to legalize medical marijuana, using "herb" in the stoner slang sense.
If you look at the polls, it's easy to believe that short of a miracle, Rule has no chance of winning. He wasn't thinking of the polls that night, though, maybe not even thinking about November. The election is still a month away, a lifetime in politics. So, with only 50,000 handshakes standing between him and victory, Herb Rule hoisted his sign above his head, walked quickly away through the dusk with that bold, younger-man's stride, and was soon lost in the crowd.