Former Times writer Warwick Sabin is our readers' choice as Best Liberal and the runner-up as Best Politician. Not hard to see why: Sabin was one of the strongest (hell, at times one of the only) progressive voices in the legislature, and was one of the most active and effective freshmen in either party. We sat down with Sabin to get his take on what progressive politicians can do in a state that seems to be trending dead-red conservative.
AT: What's the role of a progressive voice in a reddening state?
Sabin: I look at myself as a pragmatic progressive. I think there's a strong tradition of that in Arkansas, in both parties. When you look back at the legacy of Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, even when you look at some of the things that Gov. Huckabee did while he was governor. That speaks to one of the points I would make — the truth is, Arkansas has always been a moderate state. The people here care about common-sense, practical values as they're applied to politics and how we run our government. We tend to resist extremes or radical politics on either side. Arkansas obviously resisted the trends that brought the rest of the South to the Republican Party over the last few decades. There have been a lot of indications that Arkansas would go Republican several times in the past and those never panned out. ... That tide receded. We're in another position right now, obviously the Republicans have made some gains. What we saw happen during the last session, I think it has thrown up some red flags about what kind of governance may come with a permanent Republican majority in the legislature. That is more extreme than most of us are comfortable with. I feel like, as a progressive in Arkansas, I'm actually standing up for the pragmatic moderate political values that most of us here in the state want and tend to agree with, whether that's on economics or other issues.
AT: So part of your role as a progressive is to push back against more extreme voices?
Sabin: I would say so. I consider myself a Democrat in the mold of Dale Bumpers, Bill Clinton and David Pryor. These are people who gained the trust of people in the state and they stood up for moderate progressive political values in the face of, many times, extreme attacks on basic government services that most of us agree ought to be in place.
AT: The Republican party of today is not exactly the party of Win Rockefeller.
Sabin: Not at all. Not even close. All of us in Arkansas tend to care less about party than about the person, the candidate, the public official and what values they embody and promote. Being a Democrat or a Republican becomes less relevant. The only time it becomes relevant is when people try to attach themselves strongly to a party identity with the intention of pushing an ideological agenda. I think that's something that most of us in Arkansas tend to resist and tend to be repelled by.
AT: What about the role of the minority party in the legislature?
Sabin: The 51-vote majority only becomes relevant if all 51 votes can be held together on any given issue. I think the role of the minority party is to be very active and look for areas of compromise and middle ground. Because that's where a lot of the real work can get done. This is not like the U.S. Senate where you have a filibuster and it takes 60 votes to pass something and therefore the minority can just hold things up. When you have a 51-vote majority, again you have to assume it's very difficult for that party to keep the 51 together, so there are always opportunities to propose compromises and middle-ground solutions and allow the moderate forces in both parties to drive the ultimate outcome of any piece of legislation.
AT: Obviously there are situations where the 51 does hold together. What about when you just don't have the votes?
Sabin: I think it's important to always adhere to whatever values that you care deeply about and to articulate those values, and make sure that your constituents and the people around the state understand that there's more than one voice and more than one opinion. No one ever wants to lose a vote or lose on an issue, but if it's inevitable, then it's important for your side to be strongly advocated for, because the issues are going to come back. You're going to have another opportunity to address those issues in the future. Even the most controversial issues — we know that they re-surface. A lot of the legislative process is about time and hard work and it can take more than one session sometimes to make progress on any given issue. It's really important to talk about them and make sure people understand that there's not the unanimity of opinion. And also to hold people to account when they may be making an expedient decision — even members of your own party who maybe think they're doing what they have to do, but if it's not right then those people need to be called to account.
AT: What were your biggest frustrations and challenges being in the minority? What were your biggest successes?
Sabin: One of my biggest frustrations was that there were certain issues that I brought forward and others brought forward that really never had a fair hearing, because certain people in the majority didn't want to allow that to occur. Specifically I would talk about the tax-reform bill that I proposed that never even got a hearing in the Revenue and Tax committee because the chairman of that committee, Rep. Charlie Collins, was adamant about passing his tax cut intact and would not really even consider compromise, and wouldn't even allow my bill to come before the committee. And there were other issues like that throughout the session. When you have a 51-vote majority, to rule in a way that basically represses other voices is pretty short sighted and undemocratic.
As far as accomplishments go, I feel very proud about passing one of the most serious and comprehensive pieces of ethics legislation that has come in the last couple of decades. I'm proud that I was able to call attention to the need for GED funding, to continue to make that test available to people who are seeking high-school equivalency so they can get out into the workforce. I was proud that we were able to address Medicaid expansion. Obviously there were things about that process that were beyond frustrating but the result in the grand scheme of things was positive for the state. And I also think there were those of us in the minority who played very serious, key roles in all of the most important legislation that came before the body, whether it passed or it didn't pass, or whether we were on the winning or losing side. I think we were able to play very serious roles, and that our opinions and voices were heard for the most part. I think that what it's done is motivated me and others to want to be in the majority the next time, and to work hard to make sure that happens.
AT: Good segue! What's the future of the Democratic Party and progressive causes in the state of Arkansas? Can the Democrats take back the House?
Sabin: There's so many dynamics and forces at play here. In the short term I think the Democrats have a great chance at taking back the House of Representatives. And I think that's a very, very important goal because regardless of who wins the governor's race in 2014, the Democrats need the House. Obviously if a Republican wins the governor's race, then a Democratic House would be the only bulwark against anything that party would like to push through legislatively. But even if a Democrat wins, if you consider the fact that we had the most experienced, most talented governor when it comes to the legislative process that we've probably ever had in the state, in his final term — and he had a lot of frustrations and problems with this Republican legislature — you could imagine how difficult it would be for a brand new governor who, no matter which Democrat it may be, doesn't come in with the same amount of experience as Mike Beebe had with the legislature. It's going to be very difficult for that governor to manage against both houses of the legislature. But if we give that governor a Democratic House, we offer support for vetoes and just become a really solid partner in the legislative process. It's key.
The other aspect to this is obviously because it's only a 51-vote majority, it's a very achievable goal for the Democrats to take the House back. If you look at which members are term-limited this time, how many open seats there will be, how many vulnerable seats there are on both sides — the calculation tilts slightly toward the advantage of the Democrats. But it's going to require a lot of hard work, a lot of recruitment, a lot of fundraising. All of those things are very achievable. After having been through what we went through, everyone who observed how the legislature performed this last session, I think there's a greater understanding of the importance of the House of Representatives, and the need — certainly from the perspective of Democrats and progressives — to take the House back.
AT: Long term, is Arkansas moving inevitably toward a Republican majority like the rest of the South?
Sabin: I absolutely do not think that. I realize I may hold a minority view. Again, we have been hearing these predictions for decades. Arkansas has resisted it for some pretty solid reasons having to do with our demographics, and our economics, and our culture. The truth is, if the Republican Party was a more moderate party, and if they governed more responsibly, and if they had people at the highest levels of elective office who embodied that moderate, pragmatic approach to governing — then I think they'd have a better chance. But inevitably they nominate and promote the most extreme people and policies and ideologies. I think when you look at where we're heading, not only as a state but as a nation, I just don't think that's a winning calculation. Certainly there's a huge responsibility for the Democrats to also acknowledge this history and this culture and that we continue to put forward the kind of people and policies that have served us well over the last decades and not try to out-Republican the Republicans. Sometimes there's a tendency to think we've got to jump on that bandwagon. Really when you look at the most successful Democrats — Mike Beebe, Bill Clinton, Dale Bumpers, David Pryor — those are excellent examples for us to continue to follow because not much has really changed in terms of how that works. I can state examples of Democrats who I think have fallen into the trap of being more like Republicans, and they're no longer elected to office. They've lost as a result of that. I'm not saying that Arkansas is a liberal state or that we need to be more like other states. I just think we need to be ourselves and be Arkansas, and I think that what's been going on for the last few decades is what will continue to win in Arkansas politics.
AT: What about individual issues where the majority of folks in the state disagree with you? Something like gay marriage?
Sabin: My responsibility specifically is to represent my constituents in my district. And so insofar as there are positions that I take that may be a minority position for the entire state of Arkansas, I would think 99.9 percent of the time they are the majority opinion in my district and that's my primary responsibility. But I also think even going further than that, there are issues that I feel very confident about in terms of future public opinion. On the issue you brought up, the polling about younger Arkansans versus older Arkansans, I think we can see the future on that particular issue.
I'll give you another example. A lot of times it's difficult to talk about environmental issues because a lot of people think that being an environmentalist is antithetical to promoting business or economic development. But the truth is we are the Natural State, and we have a tremendous amount of natural resources that really are God-given assets to us. We do have to be very careful about preserving those resources for future generations, and making sure that we understand the role of protecting the environment as it can help economic development. Everything about those issues comes down to context. It may be that in my district somebody comes to the issue just because they are generally inclined to support the environment. But what you see happen maybe in other parts of the state, when certain issues arise, all of a sudden people who might have never considered themselves environmentalists all of a sudden become more vocal on those issues than anybody else. Two recent examples: the oil spill in Mayflower and the hog farm on the Buffalo. These are issues where I have found common cause with my Republican colleagues. Especially in the case of the Buffalo River, I put forward a bill to try to have a moratorium on those concentrated animal feeding operations. We had to scale the bill back a little bit so it mostly addressed notification procedures. But my co-sponsor on that bill was Kelly Linck, a Republican state representative from Yellville. And the reason is because everyone up there is up in arms about the effect of possible damage to the Buffalo River on tourism and their livelihoods. A lot of Republicans and conservatives who are business owners and members of the community up there have joined forces with so-called environmentalists to try to protect the Buffalo River. And again, we've seen the same thing happen in Mayflower. Whether or not you consider yourself an environmentalist or whether or not you see the importance of protecting the environment and not degrading what we have here in Arkansas, it really sometimes comes down to whether issues are presented in the abstract or whether issues are presented as practical reality. That's why, when I call myself a pragmatic progressive, I talk about issues in terms of reality. I'm not working in the abstract. I'm not pushing an ideological agenda. I'm trying to talk about things in real terms that people can understand that effect our day to day lives. And for me, if we did that more often, I think we could probably make even more progress. That's certainly the way I approach politics. That's why I'm confident that these issues where maybe we're in the minority — or maybe we're not, maybe it's just the way the issues are presented, or assumptions that people are making that aren't necessarily accurate.