Columns » John Brummett

The land partisanship forgot

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The state Democratic Party's chairman has sent letters to scores of Democratic officeholders around the state making what would seem to be an altogether reasonable request.

It's that they support Democrats in elections, not Republicans.

State Rep. Robbie Wills of Conway, a Democrat and the incoming House speaker, says he appreciated the letter and that the chairman, Bill Gwatney, “has a job to do.”

But Wills is not chastened. He says he has a job to do, too. He says a nonpartisan or bipartisanship culture in the state House has served the state well.

You may recall that Wills and 11 other House Democrats agreed to be hosts of a fundraising reception for incumbent Republican Rep. Bryan King of Green Forest, who has a nominally Democratic opponent.

I gave Wills a couple of opportunities in a phone conversation Thursday to express regret. He availed himself of neither.

The only thing he regrets, Wills replied, is that those other 11 Democratic House members — acting on their own, but perhaps seeing his support of King as a security blanket — got criticized.

Wills explained that he is the one who ran for speaker in a nonpartisan body and made a personal commitment to King, in the course of securing his support in the speaker's race, to help him raise money. Then when King got an unexpected Democratic opponent, King called and offered to let him off the hook, Wills said.

“I said, ‘No, I gave my word.' That was a pretty easy call.”

Personal relationships and cross-aisle alliances have seemed especially valuable in a severely term-limited legislature where novices are too busy learning their way around to bother with party lines or discipline. It carries a strange logic in a state where legislators, particularly rural ones, often call themselves Democrats while behaving indistinguishably from Republicans.

And it's tricky to decry silly partisan gridlock in Washington, then turn around and decry the opposite in Little Rock.

“I talk to legislators from places like Oklahoma and Alabama, and they just don't get how we do things in Arkansas,” Wills said. “They don't understand why we elect our leadership from the membership at large, instead of out of the majority party.”

Will sees no compelling need to make the House speaker's race a partisan election within the majority party's caucus, though he hastened to say, “I'd have won that way, too.”

He said it seems to work well to let all House members have an equal say in their leadership. Had there not been friendly relations between Democrats and Republicans in the House, he asserted, that steep three-fourths majority to pass the severance tax increase probably wouldn't have been achieved.

One of Gwatney's points is that Democrats are getting the short end. They enjoy a substantial majority, 75-25, and have more to lose than gain. Gwatney points out, too, that a couple of those Democrats signing on with King had been targeted for opposition two years before by state Sen. Gilbert Baker of Conway, then chairman of the state Republican Party.

But the Republican Party has been so anemic and futile in Arkansas lately that it's hard to get worked up about that. Republicans haven't hurt anyone in Arkansas in a while. U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor is going back to Washington, D.C., for six years without so much as a peep from them.

Wills said his only criticism had come from Gwatney's letter, two Democratic Party officials who were asking for an explanation more than complaining, a couple of liberal or Democratic blogs and me. And I'm not so much criticizing as explaining.

“Not one constituent has said anything to me about this,” he said.

Arkansas Democrats used to require their candidates to sign a loyalty oath. That was abandoned on account of being draconian. Something between a loyalty oath and raising money for Republicans is what Gwatney seeks.

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