Columns » Autumn Tolbert

Hope for Gray


GRAY: New Democratic Party chair. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • GRAY: New Democratic Party chair.

The Arkansas Democratic Party recently elected House Minority Leader Michael John Gray (D-Augusta), a Woodruff County farmer, over Denise Garner, a retired oncology nurse practitioner and founder of Feed Communities of Fayetteville, to replace outgoing chair Vince Insalaco of Little Rock. I do not know Garner or Gray personally, but I followed along on Twitter Saturday morning as the meeting and votes progressed. When asked, I claimed to be on the fence as to who I thought would be the best pick, but I'll admit I was initially disappointed to see that Garner lost as I believe the Arkansas Democratic Party has a lot of ground to make up to truly reflect the diversity and gender breakdown of the people the party represents.

However, several reasons have me excited for Gray's election to the helm. Like Gray, I am also from an East Arkansas farm family. I grew up in a conservative area and attended a conservative church. I often find myself explaining to my friends who were born and raised in Fayetteville how deep the religious influence and mistrust of outsiders runs in some rural communities. I have a feeling Gray's Facebook friend lists looks a lot like mine: a pretty even split of progressives and conservatives with a few cult-like Trumpers in the mix. I imagine he grew up with the same maroon Farm Bureau cardboard calendar in his home and parents and grandparents like mine who spent a lot of time watching the sky over the fields for signs of rain. I have a feeling Gray has a deep understanding of what drives many of the rural voters of Arkansas.

I left Craighead County for Fayetteville over 20 years ago but still have deep ties to that area. The politics of the past year has created divisions in my family that I am unsure can ever be repaired. Fayetteville often feels as if it is on another planet from my hometown of Bono. As difficult as it may be, I hope Gray will find a way to bridge the gap between the Democrats in Northwest Arkansas with those in Jonesboro and El Dorado and Little Rock and Pine Bluff and Batesville and Waldron. I hope he can bring us together to begin the long process of convincing the teachers, farmers and other hardworking Arkansans that the Democratic Party is the party of the people. And I hope he can do it by not giving an inch on the party's commitment to equal rights for all.

One idea I hope Gray implements is the part of Garner's proposed "Blueprint" for the party that acknowledges that if the Democratic Party is to be a party for everyone and a party of working people, there must be a way to eliminate financial barriers to becoming a member. I hope Gray will consider finding a way to make party membership completely free. I understand there must be some attendance or other deadline requirement to take part in county committee elections, but money should not be such a requirement.

It is embarrassing to admit, but as recently as four years ago, when my husband and I were struggling to save enough money on my public defender salary to cover the bills expected during my upcoming maternity leave, we would not have had the money to spare if we had sought to join our local Democratic Party. We had just purchased our first home when he was laid off from his job. The unemployment benefits my husband received were appreciated and necessary, but were half of his former salary. Here we were, two people in need of the Democratic Party's ideals of paid parental leave and unemployment benefits, yet we were not in a position to pay to have a voice at our county party level.

That county level vote is important, as those are the members who elect the local party leadership, which includes the political "gatekeepers" who recruit candidates and control the county funds. There are people all across the state of Arkansas showing up to town hall meetings, marches and making calls to elected officials to support progressive ideals who may not have the funds to pay to join the Democratic Party. They are just as deserving of influence as those who can pay. I hope Gray takes Garner's idea and goes beyond a few membership scholarships here and there with a real statewide effort to make the party truly accessible to all by eliminating county dues. If Gray has learned anything from being a farmer, it is the understanding that what he plants today, the Democratic Party will harvest tomorrow. An economically diverse base at the county level will help grow a strong Democratic Party in Arkansas.

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