- Brian Chilson
It's appropriate that in the corner of state House Minority Leader Michael John Gray's office in Augusta, next to the floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on a picturesque bend in the White River, is a stuffed and mounted loggerhead snapping turtle so big it wouldn't fit in a wash tub. Legend has it that once a snapping turtle gets a bite on you, it will grimly hang on until it hears a clap of thunder. It's a fitting symbol these days for the Democratic Party of Arkansas, which has seen its power dwindle over the past 25 years from unquestioned statewide dominance to bare smatterings of blue; the Delta, Fayetteville, Little Rock and Pine Bluff. Red State Yellow Dog Democrats like Gray know all about grimly hanging on.
Gray, 40, is only the third Democratic minority leader in the Arkansas House since Reconstruction, and he recently announced his candidacy for chair of the Democratic Party in the state. The representative for District 47, which includes parts of Jackson, Woodruff, White and Independence counties, he now rides herd over a whopping 25 Democrats in the House, the caucus thinned by 10 members since the last session alone.
When an Arkansas Times reporter visited his cluttered office in Augusta the day before Thanksgiving, Gray was on the phone talking strategy and shoring up nervous partisans in the wake of another defection: State Rep. David Hillman of Almyra (Arkansas County), who, citing a desire to "better represent the changing views of the people in our district," announced on Nov. 22 he would be flipping to the Republicans. He follows State Rep. Jeff Wardlaw of Hermitage, who announced on Nov. 9 that he would change parties. Hillman had been re-elected after running unopposed this year, but he believed the writing was on the wall in Lonoke, Prairie, Arkansas and White counties, which he represents. Hillman's switch gave the Republicans a 75-member supermajority in the 100-member House, meaning that if Republicans move as a bloc, they can do pretty much whatever the hell they want if a vote makes it to the floor without fear of veto or an end-run around from opponents.
That news might look like rock bottom for a lot of Democrats in the state, but there's still room to fall. Gray's own home county of Woodruff, a reliably Democratic bastion that clings to the western edge of the Blue Belt along the Mississippi River in East Arkansas, voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, but broke for Trump this year by 9 percentage points over Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, the same voters dropped down a few spots on the ballot and gave Conner Eldridge, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, a 24-point edge over Republican incumbent Sen. John Boozman. It was that kind of year.
If Gray is taking up his post-election hair shirt with a lot of other Democrats in the state, however, he must be doing it in private. In public, it looks as if he came to fight. He was, for instance, one of the architects of the Nov. 10 effort by Democrats to stack the crucial House Revenue and Taxation Committee, a surprise maneuver that left the Irrelevant Party in control of 11 of 20 seats and at least slightly dimmed House Republicans' post-election afterglow. It's a move that could potentially allow Democrats to haggle over or block tax cuts in the next session; cuts that Gray and others believe could be disastrous to programs helping children, the poor and the elderly all over the state. With Democrats wandering in the wilderness two days after an election when the worst impulses of far-right conservatism seemed to hold sway from dog catcher to the door of the White House, it was a little sweet to watch Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin go on a huffy Twitter rant in which he called the Revenue and Taxation Committee stack "an affront to voters" before crying that "just because the Dems did it doesn't make it right."
The Arkansas Senate has since passed a rule change that allows the minority party to hold only three seats on any committee. Standing committees in the Senate have eight members. Gray said he expects a rules change to deny Democrats committee majorities in the House in future sessions. That's a fight for tomorrow, though. Gray said he and other Democrats see no upside to obstructing simply for the sake of obstruction on Revenue and Taxation. But for now, for this session, the gang of 25 will still have at least some say in how the ship of state is run.
Though Democratic numbers are down in Arkansas and almost everywhere but the coasts right now, Gray believes the 2016 election is actually something of an opportunity for the party here and nationwide. While having cold water thrown in your face is never pleasant, he notes that it does tend to wake a person up. He's running for party chair, he said, because if Democrats are ever going to rebuild enough to make a comeback in the state, they're going to have to stop seeing everything but the larger cities and the Delta as a lost cause. Most of that shift of perception, he believes, will have to be accomplished with shoe leather out in the little towns of Arkansas, with Democrats talking to poor and working class voters about their hopes and fears. That's not going to be easy, but Gray believes there's a way back for Democrats: offering a message of hope and opportunity, especially in the forgotten corners of the state that look like they have none.
Michael John Gray's family has been farming in Woodruff County since time out of mind. Though he and his wife, Amy, and their young son live in Augusta, in a 100-year-old house with a backyard that slopes down to the White River and includes a tree swing, his family farm is six miles outside of town. A row crop farmer, he grows soybeans and peanuts there, but has made a go of everything from catfish to cotton over the years.
"Farming is a tough life," he said. "It's an interesting lifestyle, but it's a rocky road. ... For every one of those guys that's portrayed as wealthy landed aristocracy, there's the guy who has everything his family has ever worked for mortgaged to the hilt. They're all betting on the come, and there's no summer vacations or spring breaks."
- Brian Chilson
- WORKING THE PHONE: Gray, in his home office in Augusta, had to reassure Democratic colleagues after former Democratic state Rep. David Hillman switched parties last week.
When he was a kid, Gray said, there were 12 family farms in the six miles between downtown Augusta and his family's spread. Today, there are just three. That's the evolution of the industry, he said, but it's also indicative of why little towns are struggling all over the state. That's families gone. That's jobs gone that once paid for refrigerators and rent and new Fords. Standing in Gray's backyard, a visitor can see the looming bulk of two huge tin grain mills that once loaded the harvested bounty of the White River delta onto barges. Both are closed now. Though Gray himself sees promise in Augusta, pointing out the local businesses and waving to folks who leave their cars running on the street while they dash into the post office for some stamps, it looks like a lot of faded towns in the rural corners of the state. To an outsider, it might easily seem that the best thing Augusta has going for it at this point is the fact that the nearest Walmart is more than 20 miles away.
Gray said the tough life is why his father tried to do all he could to steer his kids away from farming. Straight out of high school, Gray left Augusta to attend the University of Arkansas, but eventually dropped out when it became clear he wasn't living up to his own expectations. He worked the night shift at a foundry, and then spent time on the road with a company that moved heavy equipment. Eventually, he came back home and started working alongside his dad on the family farm. At his father's urging, he went to night school and eventually got his degree at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. He went on to get a law degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's William H. Bowen School of Law in 2004. That June, at the height of activity on the farm, his father died in a car accident. It's a moment in his story that Gray glosses over, but that seems to comes back to haunt our conversation later, when he talks about the simple things people in his district need: another ambulance, hospitals and clinics closer than 25 miles away, rumble strips on the edge of the road to warn inattentive or sleepy motorists, highway shoulders that aren't so high they cause drivers to drop off and crash out on the lonesome prairie.
During his stint at the UA in the mid-1990s, Gray was bitten hard by the political bug, citing the era as "the height of Arkansas politics." More interested in other pursuits, however, he said he missed "the Clinton window" that other politically minded friends jumped through. "I still regret, today, that I missed taking advantage of some of the opportunities my friends had to take political jobs or take internships, things like that," he said.
Back home on the farm by 2002, driving back and forth to school at night to pursue his degree, Gray was approached to run for the Augusta City Council. He got beat, but in 2008 he ran again and won. He would go on to serve two terms. While he'd been interested in government, he said actually participating in government was a real wake-up call. "You've got to love where you're from if you're from a small town in Arkansas," he said. "I want to do whatever I can to help the town. But I saw what we could do and what we couldn't do. The limitations. Once you see it from that side of the table, you realize there are things you'd like to do but you can't do."
Though Woodruff County has long been a Democratic stronghold, buttressed by a sizable African-American population and an abundance of what Gray calls Roosevelt Democrats and their descendants, one of the disadvantages of Woodruff County being reliably Democratic is that the Republicans didn't campaign there and the Democrats didn't have to.
"It was easy to overlook us," he said. "In recent years, it felt like we needed to make sure we had a seat at the table. That's why I ran [for House]."
He'd done some soul-searching in the years before with regard to his political ideology, but had eventually come to the conclusion that he was a Democrat, and wanted to stay one, even as the rural parts of the state tracked steadily more Republican.
"I'm a contrarian," he said. "All my friends growing up were [St. Louis] Cardinals fans, but because they were, I was a [Chicago] Cubs fan. There were probably times in my life that my parents were Clinton supporters that I was trying to find a way to support the Republican Party. ... But while I pride myself on wanting to be fiscally responsible, I didn't line up with the Republican Party. It just wasn't a fit for me."
It was a hell of a time to settle on being a Democrat in Arkansas. The 2014 election, when Gray won his first term in the House, was another crushing blow. The Democratic freshman class that year was all of eight people. "A lot of the Northeast Arkansas relationships I'd made — First [Congressional] District relationships I'd made, people I'd looked forward to serving with — got beat that night," he said. "So I'm down here [in Little Rock] to draw for seniority and committees the Friday after that election, and everybody is shell-shocked. Heck, even the majority didn't think they were going to win that many seats. They took Democrats down to 36 members at that point."
The Democrats were a desperate minority, he said, shipwrecked on an island in the red sea, trying to figure out how to be relevant and salvage what they could.
In the face of such hopelessness, his contrarian nature kicked in, and he soon became known among his colleagues as someone constantly throwing ideas against the wall to see what would stick. In September of last year, he was elected as House Minority Leader, taking over from Rep. Eddie Armstrong of North Little Rock.
"My goal, from day one, was to never have that feeling again," he said. "No matter what our numbers were, everybody was going to feel like they were a part of something, part of a team. Wednesday, a couple of weeks ago, when we got just beat down again, I was like, 'You know, there are 25 other people out there that I'm a part of.' In a year, we accomplished that."
One result of playing team ball was the Democratic capture of the majority on the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, which Gray said was about hitting the Republicans where they didn't expect when it came time for committee selections. Though Gray said some of his Republican colleagues are worried Democrats on the committee plan to throw up stumbling blocks for Governor Hutchinson every chance they get, the plan is to work with the governor and allow Hutchinson to take the lead.
"Our goal is to make sure that everything gets a good, responsible look," he said. "Let's take the political ideology out of taxpayer dollars. Let's look at what's responsible with taxpayer money. That's our only goal. I think it would be absolute political malpractice for me to just lay a gauntlet down and say, 'We're not doing this!' Our goal is to look at it and have conversations with the governor. To say, 'We respect that, but what about this? Can this work, too? What about this family where mom and dad are both working two jobs 60 hours a week and making too much money to qualify for pre-K? How can we affect the topside of their check? What about the schoolteacher who has to dig in his or her pocket to buy school supplies? What about that person? Are we giving incentives to out-of-state companies to pay lip service to job creation in Arkansas? What about the opportunity to really bring jobs into some of these communities that are hurting for them?' I'm not saying that's what the governor is doing, but we want to make sure those people are involved in the conversation."
There is, of course, the issue of whether a party with 25 people in the House (and only nine in the Senate) can actually have enough sway to get things done for the people in their districts. It's a question that may plague Democrats in coming years, finding new rocks under rock bottom: Have the fortunes of the party sunk so low in Arkansas that voting Democratic is a lost cause if you want a politician who can get things done? Gray said it's a fair point, but misses how much cooperation still goes on in the House between Democrats and Republicans.
"Are there some votes made here politically? Absolutely," he said. "But I can go talk to someone at the [Highway and Transportation Department] or reach out to [the Department of Human Services] because a constituent asked me to, or reach out to my friends across the aisle and say, 'Here's a problem we're having in my district, I bet you're having it in yours, too.' You just have to go about things a different way. Maybe, because we're in the minority, the Democrats aren't going to get to carry the banner of the big legislation sometimes, but people have reasonable conversations."
The question he gets asked most since the election is, what will the coming of Trump mean to Arkansas and the nation? "I've had a million conversations since [election] night, people from every walk of life, every class, talking about being scared, talking about moving out of state or out of the country. Legitimately, too. Not just saying it," he said. "I'm scared for them. But I'm more saddened. I have friends who voted for Trump. They didn't vote for Trump because they're racists, or because they are condemning everybody to hell who doesn't go to their church. They just wanted a reset. They wanted change." Part of his sadness, he said, is that people were so desperate for a reset that they didn't stop to think if Trump had the temperament or experience to do the job. The other part is what has everybody still reeling from the election: the uncertainty of it all.
- Brian Chilson
- THE WAY BACK: For Democrats, Gray says, it means offerings a message of hope and opportunity, especially in the forgotten corners of the state.
"I would have never thought in 1988," Gray said, "when I was reading about internment camps in my social studies class in Augusta, that 40 years later, we would be thinking about modern day internment camps. Who would have thought that?" (A Trump supporter suggested after the election that the Japanese internment camps set a "precedent" for a Muslim immigrant registry.)
Democrats have hit the wall in Arkansas and the country, he said, but the way forward — even in Red or Dead Arkansas 2016 — is for the Democratic Party and Democratic politicians to go out into the state and talk to the people who have consistently been voting against them in recent years.
"Instead of being angry, have that open dialogue," he said. "Will we leave some of those conversations just as mad as when we started? Absolutely. But you don't have any chance of gaining ground if you don't have those conversations."
While Gray said the Democratic Party has done a wonderful job of advocating for working people over the years, the message has been co-opted by those who paint Democrats with the broad brushes of the culture wars. The antidote to that, he believes, is to get back to the basic message: that the Democratic Party is the one that would lift all boats instead of telling people to sink or swim.
"Unfortunately, we've allowed the national brand and the state brand to be defined by that message of 'All they're worried about is forcing change down your throat,' " he said. "I really think Democrats are about, 'Change is happening. Too fast for some, not fast enough for others, but we're all in this together, and we should treat each other decently.' ... You can't compromise that at all. You have to say, 'We have a moral obligation to treat our neighbors with decency and respect. Period.' However, I do think there are ways to have that conversation with people without wagging a finger at them. There needs to be a balance. We need to do more talking to and less talking at."
When people try to write off Arkansas as lost to the Republicans, Gray points out that the state is six years removed from Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe carrying all 75 counties. That victory, Gray believes, wasn't about party or ideology. It was about hope. "Why did Governor Beebe carry 75 counties?" Gray asked. "Because when he talked about his single mother and living in a shack and waiting tables, and he could say, 'By God, I can't make your groceries cheaper, but I can make sure you don't pay taxes on them when you buy them.' People believed that, and they lived that. He felt their pain. He understood their interests. He didn't say, 'You're voting against your interests.' ... That's a mistake we say about people, right? We say, 'Those people are out there voting against their own self-interest!' Well, it's pretty arrogant to say that. Do you know what their interest is? I can say that guy's economic policy doesn't address a certain income level of people or his tax cuts are going to hurt a single mom or working family, I can say that. But to say somebody is voting against their self-interest without being out there listening to what their interests really are?"
While Democrats are understandably despondent over the election of Trump, Gray said, the way to understand the rise of Trumpism is to understand that Trump is only the symptom of the real issue: Struggling people felt their concerns weren't being heard and wanted change so badly that they made a desperation vote.
"Frankly, I don't think either party is really hearing what Arkansans fear, what they need, what they hope," he said. "The Democratic Party is doing a great job of being inclusive. We'll never stop. We've always been a big tent party. But we're going to have to do a better job of listening to the issues that aren't the headlines — that aren't the coffee shop topics. ... You drive down Highway 64 from Bald Knob to Marianna, and there's an empty factory building in every town. People want jobs. They want opportunities so that their kids can not only go to college, but when they graduate from college, they can move back home because there's something there for them. We shouldn't quit fighting for the things we're fighting for, but we should be addressing those issues, too."
If he's elected chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, Gray said, he doesn't want to couch his approach in the same rural vs. urban political warfare that was so crucial in the election of Trump. Instead, he wants to try to get back to the idea of one Arkansas — that Arkansans in both rural and urban areas want the same things in the long run: jobs, good schools, safe roads, clean air and water, and support for the most vulnerable people. While Gray acknowledges he probably can't bring a shirt factory or valve plant back to Arkansas from China, he said Democrats can make sure that communities are ready for investment, while working to help people in need until opportunity comes knocking. That's the oldest of old saws about good politicians: "He fights for the little guy." The fight is the thing, and Gray clearly has some fight in him.
"I can't bring those 12 farmers back and have all those jobs," he said. "But I can dang sure make sure that if you live in Augusta, Ark., or Huntsvile, Ark., or Gurdon, Ark., and you want your 3- or 4-year-old to have a quality pre-K education to get a good start, I can fight every day to make sure they get it. Arkansas is No. 2 in senior hunger. I can fight every day for us to address that."