Two Arkansas State Representatives, Republican Terry Rice and Democrat Darrin Williams, are vying to become the next Speaker of the House in a hotly contested race that will be decided on Friday, March 9.
The outcome will be a first in Arkansas history.
I spoke with the Democratic candidate, Darrin Williams of Little Rock, about the Speaker’s race and got some interesting insights.
Williams believes he has the right experience, and the needed number of votes, to become the next Speaker of the House. Williams noted he has experience in working in a bi-partisan manner and wants to keep D.C.-style politics out of the State House.
Williams visited with me on Wednesday as he was driving to meet with his legislative colleagues at the Country Caucus and my first question was for him to explain the major differences between himself and Terry Rice.
“In any endeavor, experience matters. So I’ve asked my colleagues to not judge me on what I’m going to do, but judge me on what I have done and my experience,” Williams said. “I have the experience of running a state agency as chief deputy for an Attorney General and had been at the State Capitol quite a bit to get budgets passed and work on various pieces of legislation. I hit the ground with a little more experience having run a state agency with 150 employees and a multi-million dollar budget.”
Williams noted he had experience in county government and the federal government having worked for the Pulaski County Planning Commission and former U.S. Senator David Pryor. Rep. Williams is an attorney and is a partner in the law firm of Carney Williams Bates Pulliam & Bowman, PLLC.
Williams stressed his experience in working with members of both political parties and plans to work in a bi-partisan fashion if elected Speaker.
“My record and my works shows I work across party lines,” he said.
Williams pointed to some examples of how he’s worked with both parties to get things done, such as the 2011 Prison Reform bill, which had 21 Republican co-sponsors and a bill during his first term back in 2009 that dealt with a scrap metal theft issue. On that particular bill, Williams said he had 20 out of the 28 Republicans serving in the House sponsoring the bill.
Williams believes his opponent, Terry Rice, doesn’t have significant experience in working across the proverbial political aisle with members of another party.
“If you compare my record to Terry Rice, and he’s a great guy, but he has not had those experiences and he hasn’t built a coalition on any legislation like that,” said Williams. “If you look at the two candidates, I think I have more experience on those things and issues that matter for Speaker.”
Rice is profiled here by my blogging counterpart, Jason Tolbert.
Williams said he expected the votes to be largely on partisan political lines, but Williams added this caveat.
“However, I’ve had several conversations with members on the Republican side of the aisle who have said they think I’m highly qualified, think I’d do a good job and want to vote for me. I’m not going to call names or tell you my numbers, but I have the votes to win even if I don’t get Republican votes,” said Williams.
“But I hope that whatever happens, as we move past this election, that the House as a body will really work toward not looking like D.C. We need to continue to build camaraderie and civility. It’s okay to disagree. I’m a trial lawyer so I am used to talking about differences, but one thing I appreciate about most of my colleagues is that you can have disagreements without becoming disagreeable. I don’t want partisan politics to stifle the work that needs to be done for the people of Arkansas. We’ve got to put people above politics and partisanship.”
Rep. Williams made an interesting observation that I had not fully considered on the role of the winner in next weeks’ contest. The winner becomes the Speaker-designate and must begin immediately planning the 89th General Assembly that convenes in January of 2013. There has been talk among some political insiders that the losing side in the Speaker’s race may attempt to force another vote in January depending on the November election results.
“Whoever is elected, the body will get behind that person and work toward preparing for a very good 89th General Assembly and we won’t change horses in mid-stream because that is going to cost us the state of Arkansas a lot of time and money and it’s going to be inefficient,” said Williams on this particular issue.
Rep. Williams also believes Democrats will not only retain their majorities in the House, but would likely gain a few seats because he believes Arkansas Democrats have fielded a great group of candidates.
This Speaker’s race has been relatively quiet, but it’s been interesting to observe because so many factors and questions may come into play for next week’s vote.
Will Democrats hold the line and make sure all their members vote for their candidate? Can the Democratic candidate pick off a couple of Republican votes?
Regardless, one of two things will definitely happen with next week’s election: Arkansas will have either its first African-American Speaker of the House or it will have its first Republican Speaker of the House.
Either way, this Speaker’s race will be one for the history books.