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Race and politics in the Second District

Black candidate of 1984 sees less division today.



Both Joyce Elliott, who is black, and Tim Griffin, who is white, have said they don't expect race to be an issue in their contest for the Second Congressional District seat. Race was an issue when Thedford Collins sought the Second District seat in 1984, according to Collins. Like Elliott today, he hoped to become the first black Arkansan elected to Congress. Twenty-six years later, Elliott has at least gotten nearer that goal, winning the Democratic nomination this month. She'll oppose Griffin, the Republican nominee, in the November general election. Collins finished fourth in a field of five in the first Democratic primary of 1984.

"It was a time when we as a society had not made many of the strides that we have now made," Collins said. "I think it's correct that race will not have as great an effect this year." There was no President Barack Obama in 1984, for example. (Although, if the rest of the country had voted like Arkansas, there'd be no President Obama in 2010, either.)

Now 62 and living in Washington, Collins gets back to Arkansas a couple of times a year, and still follows Arkansas politics. He worked for the big timber company, Weyerhaeuser, for years, and was the company's top lobbyist in Washington until he retired. He said he still does consulting work.

Collins grew up in Monticello and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello. With politics in mind, and knowing that race counted, he "did all the mainstream kind of things," hoping to reduce resistance. By the time he ran for Congress, he'd been a stockbroker and a banker and had worked for two of the state's most prominent politicians, David Pryor and Jim Guy Tucker.

But in 1984, "Busing was still a big issue," Collins said. "We weren't that far from 'Separate but Equal.' " And one of Collins' opponents was the inflammatory sheriff of Pulaski County, Tommy Robinson. "Tommy ran ads about a child at a bus stop at 7:15 in the morning." Tommy won the election, too. He eventually switched parties, finding more in common with the Republicans.

"You don't have those kinds of [racially] divisive issues any more," Collins said. "Now you have health care, unemployment, things that affect all people."

Collins said Elliott benefits from having something he didn't — a public record to run on. Never having held office himself, Collins faced three incumbents — Robinson, Secretary of State Paul Riviere and state Sen. Stanley Russ of Conway. The other candidate was Dale Cowling, a well-known Baptist preacher who'd run for Congress once before.

Republicans likely won't talk about Elliott's race — that's unfashionable — but they're already calling her the most liberal member of the legislature, just as the moderate Obama is accused of socialism. One need not be very liberal to be the most liberal member of the Arkansas legislature. It's a conservative body, most of its members elected with corporate money. Ask Elliott if the charge of liberalism is true, and she says, "It depends on what they mean by liberal. I've been very progressive on issues of education and families."

Speaking of charges, will Elliott point out that Griffin studied morals under Karl Rove? "Only in a proper context," she said. "It's not in the front of my head as a campaign strategy."

It's possible that gender could be more important than race in the Second District. Some pundits profess to see a political "Year of the Woman," and Elliott will need a big women's vote to win. In that regard, it would help if the Arkansas Education Association went all-out for her. Most of the state's schoolteachers are women, and Elliott is a former teacher herself. But the AEA seems to still be nursing a grudge over Elliott's long-ago effort to organize a rival teachers union. It supported Robbie Wills in the Democratic primary.

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