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No free ride in NW Arkansas

A Democratic challenger emerges in the perennially Republican 3rd Congressional District.

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  • A DEMOCRAT FOR THE THIRD: Woodrow Anderson III.

Woodrow Anderson III, a 33-year-old Fort Smith businessman, intends to file next week as a Democratic candidate for Arkansas’s third district U.S. congressional seat.

An infantry officer in the Army Reserve, Anderson says he decided to enter politics while attending a recent reserve officers’ conference in Washington, D.C.

“A lot of us are unhappy with where the country is going,” Anderson said. “As junior officers, we don’t have the opportunity to make a difference. But one place you can make a difference is running for federal office.”

No other Democrats have indicated an interest in the race, and if Anderson receives his party’s nomination he will likely face incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. John Boozman, who is expected to seek election to a third term.

Boozman is among four Republicans who have occupied the Northwest Arkansas congressional position since 1967. While that suggests a daunting challenge for Anderson, he thinks it provides an argument for his candidacy.

“The third district is the hardest race for a Democrat to win, no doubt about it,” Anderson said. “But for us to put the district where it needs to be, it’s going to require a change in leadership. We need to convince people to make a change.”

Anderson said he called Democratic Party chairman Jason Willett and volunteered to run. Willett thinks Anderson’s “intriguing background,” combined with Boozman’s close association with an increasingly unpopular president, gives the Democrats a good chance to win the seat.

That background includes Anderson’s anti-abortion stance and his ongoing 15 years of military service — although he has never been called for active duty. Anderson joined the Army Reserve in 1991 to help pay for his undergraduate education at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned an economics degree from the Wharton School of Business and a sociology degree from the university’s arts and sciences college.

Born in Fayetteville, Anderson spent most of his youth in Mulberry before moving at 16 to Fort Smith, where he graduated from Southside High School.

His father is a pharmacist who owns Anderson’s Discount Pharmacy in Fort Smith, and Anderson earned an associate of arts degree in pre-pharmacy from Westark College as a high school junior.

After college, he spent two years as a business consultant in Dallas at Anderson Consulting (now called Accenture) before going to Cambridge University in England for an M.B.A. He returned to Dallas for consulting stints at Arthur Anderson and the Fossil Watch company, and after a year running Fossil’s Italian business unit in Vicenza, he came back to Arkansas at the end of 2004 to run the family businesses, which include the Howard Johnson Inn and Woody’s restaurant and bar in downtown Fort Smith.

Accordingly, Anderson’s campaign platform focuses on helping small businesses with measures that include streamlining and simplifying the federal loan process. He wouldn’t vote to raise the federal minimum wage, calling it a “state issue.” Anderson also believes the government can do more to help young people.

“I don’t think Boozman has a plan for investing in our youth,” said Anderson, who has a 6-year-old son and is expecting another child in September with his wife, Francesca, a social worker. “He has not brought any innovative or even middle-of-the-road programs around that, and I think there are a lot of federal dollars that can be funneled there.”

Anderson also says his military experience distinguishes him from Boozman, who did not serve in the armed forces. Based on that background, Anderson says he will be a better advocate for veterans and current soldiers.

“He doesn’t have a concept of the stresses and the future that I do,” Anderson said. “Unless you have been in the military and lived it, you have no concept of what it takes to succeed and win.”

But winning a congressional election will be an uphill battle for Anderson, who has never been involved in a political campaign.

Asked for his appraisal of a Democrat’s chances of wresting the seat from Boozman, UALR political science professor Art English said, “It doesn’t look too good. Maybe not none, but very, very, very slim. I just think it’s really hard for a Democrat up there.”

Anderson admits he will start from scratch in building financial and voter support. Two years ago, Boozman raised about $700,000 for his re-election effort and defeated his Democratic opponent, Jan Judy, by a margin of 59 percent to 38 percent.

Judy says Boozman has benefited from keeping a low profile, but that he may be vulnerable based on his consistent support of President George W. Bush, who has a 34 percent approval rating in Arkansas, according to a KTHV/SurveyUSA poll taken earlier this month. Boozman is one of Bush’s most loyal legislative allies, voting with the administration’s agenda over 90 percent of the time.

“If you don’t like what the president is doing, you won’t like what Boozman is doing, because he votes with the president on every issue,” Judy said. “I’ve been told I ran two years too early.”

Willett cites the Arkansas Poll conducted by University of Arkansas researchers last fall, in which 37 percent of the respondents identified themselves as Republicans, 32 percent as Democrats, and the remaining 31 percent as independents. Anderson can win, Willett says, if he can capitalize on the independents’ discontent with Bush.

With that in mind, Anderson says he will talk about fuel prices, the federal budget deficit, problems with Medicare Part D and Bush’s proposal to privatize Social Security. He also criticizes Boozman for not returning campaign contributions from former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who is a key figure in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and was indicted in a campaign finance conspiracy.

Still, English says Boozman is an “extremely nice guy,” so it will be difficult to turn public opinion against him.

“He’s done a good job in terms of constituent service,” English said. “And he’s got a pretty strong conservative Republican voting record. It’ll just be pretty tough to beat him.”

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