Democratic Party Chairman Jason Willett says his decision to resign in April was influenced by the accelerated pace of the presidential nominating process, although he likely would have stepped down in June anyway.
Willett said he told Gov. Mike Beebe after the November elections that he was interested in consulting on the campaigns of either U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton or retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, in addition to maintaining a lobbying practice.
“Before the first of the year, I had a talk with Gov. Beebe about doing another term as chairman,” Willett said. “We decided I would run again and then re-evaluate after six months based on the circumstances involved. My intention was to stay around for the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in June.”
Willett was re-elected without opposition Jan. 27.
He said he decided to resign on Feb. 2, after meeting in Washington with representatives of various Democratic presidential candidates. The campaigns were organizing quicker than he expected, and Willett decided he couldn’t wait any longer to get involved.
“Because of the presidential campaign and the pace it is setting, plus my business, I made the governor aware I intended to step away in April rather than waiting until June,” Willett said. “I made the decision on Friday. My mother didn’t know, my sister didn’t know. I informed the governor on Friday night.”
Willett’s decision was reported in newspapers the next morning, along with news that he had registered in Arkansas as a lobbyist on Jan. 26 — the day before he stood for re-election as party chairman.
Even though he planned to leave the position before his term was up, Willett said he and Beebe agreed he should run for second term as chairman to “provide a smooth transition” for his successor.
While he was in Washington last week, Willett also was re-elected as the Southern chairman of the executive committee of the Association of State Democratic Chairs, an auxiliary of the Democratic National Committee. He will have to relinquish that post when he steps down as state party chairman, but he hopes to leverage the experience into a job on a presidential campaign.
“I want to be involved in helping Wes Clark and Hillary Clinton if they run, and only those two,” Willett said. “I’ve had conversations with their staffs to let my intentions be known that I would like to be a consultant and help with Southern strategy.”
Willett will continue to do government affairs work for the Arkansas Democratic Party, Izon A.M.S., Little Rock Zoo, Natural State Ethanol, Softwyre, Inc., and Young Investment Co.
He also admits to an ambition to run for elected office, specifically the congressional seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Marion Berry, for whom Willett worked for 10 years before becoming party chairman. He would not challenge Berry, however.
Willett caught some criticism for using a line of credit to finance party work during leaner months, but he says he left the party in “absolutely wonderful financial shape,” thanks mainly to Beebe’s inaugural events.
Willett took pains to emphasize that the decision to step down was his alone and that he was not forced out by the new governor. “I can 100 percent say with all of my heart that I couldn’t ask for a better person to work with than Mike Beebe.”