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The Wasilla of Saline County

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Many new arrivals to central Arkansas likely assume that the Saline County community of Bryant has long been a bastion of Republicanism. That's not the case, for just a generation ago that town — like the county around it — was a consistent source of Democratic votes. While the transformation of Bryant's politics is more stark than that of other communities in Central Arkansas (Conway, Cabot, and Benton, among others), it exemplifies why Republicans are now strongly advantaged in the Second Congressional District and on the cusp of consistent success in statewide elections. It is communities like Bryant that are grooming the next generation of state government leaders, for good or ill.

With locals doing more than a little flirting with socialism during the Depression area, it's not surprising that one of the few success stories for organized labor in Arkansas came in the aluminum processing plants that boomed during and after World War II in the county. While Alcoa drew heavily from Bauxite and Benton, those working to mine bauxite and process aluminum for Reynolds came disproportionately from Bryant, which officially reincorporated as a town in 1946. Thus, Bryant's small population was dominated by citizens who had seen the power of labor organizing to push families from economic dire straits to the middle class in a single generation.

While labor unions promoted their economic progressivism, Bryant residents also showed a comfort with social change unique for the region. It made investments in public works programs and parks still fairly rare in rural Arkansas communities. Most tellingly, the city's schools desegregated relatively early and with little fanfare.

Understanding this unique political context makes it unsurprising that one of the first serious threats within the state Democratic party to the Faubus machine came from the community. Running two years before Dale Bumpers, Ted Boswell (who remains an active trial lawyer) came within a handful of votes of making the Democratic runoff that likely would have put him on the path followed by Bumpers in 1970. In the elections of that era, Bryant joined Saline County as a source of consistently large Democratic margins in most elections; it made sense that the final rally before the Democratic primary was held for decades on the grounds of the county courthouse.

But, dramatic demographic change came to Bryant in the 1970s (the town's population more than doubled in that one decade) and that change was fueled by race. As busing orders were handed down as a remedy to the past legal segregation in public schools in the county to the north, whites began to flee the Little Rock School District in response and the Bryant School District was one of the closest stops on a major interstate. Movement to Saline County intensified after the federal court decisions in the 1980s that created more instability in the Little Rock and Pulaski County districts. Population growth has steadily continued with the town now over 12,500; realtors sell it with a series of phrases ("it's a good place to raise a family"; "it has good schools"; "it's a safe community") that emphasize that it is not Little Rock and that it is racially homogenous.

This demographic change brought emphatic political change to the community. The demise of the bauxite industry left only retirees in the community as practitioners of the progressive politics of the past. By 1994, the Bryant precincts in the governor's race gave Republican Sheffield Nelson right at 60 percent of the vote despite the fact that Democrat Governor Jim Guy Tucker won just under 60 percent statewide. The Republican tide intensified to the point that Blanche Lincoln polled well under 30 percent in the city in 2010.

Mayoral candidate Jill Dabbs and her friend, Heather Kizer (running for city clerk), fought all the way to circuit court in an attempt to use "Republican" on the ballot for the nonpartisan offices (their husbands were on the same ballot, running for the partisan office of justice of the peace). Like Sarah Palin in Wasilla, Alaska, Dabbs ran as a reformer specifically appealing to the town's new residents like herself. Moreover, the chaotic and combative way that Dabbs has governed in these early months (fighting for her own higher pay and outlays for the swimming team she founded) reads much like Palin's early days as mayor in another almost all-white, fast-growing suburb of a similar size thousands of miles away.

Making partisan these formally nonpartisan offices in growing communities like Bryant become a potential treasure trove for a Republican party that has had enormous difficulty in building a field team to run for higher offices in Arkansas. However, we should be wary of the politics that such communities produce. It is a politics grounded in separation from diversity, where combativeness trumps cooperation, and where reform is more faux than real.

Jay Barth is the M.E. and Ima Graves Peace Distinguished Professor of Politics Chair of the Department of Politics and International Relations Director of Civic Engagement Projects at Hendrix College.

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