story by Ryan Saylor
Confirming speculation that has been swirling for weeks, Democrat James Lee Witt made official today that he would seek his party's nomination for Congress in Arkansas’ 4th Congressional District.
Witt, a former Yell County judge and director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the Clinton Administration, becomes to the second Democrat to announce for the seat following an announcement by Hot Springs educator Janis Percefull.
Republicans Tommy Moll and House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman are running for the Republican nomination to replace U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, who is challenging U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor for re-election next year.
In announcing his run, the former FEMA director said he would take his vast experience in emergency management and apply it to Washington.
"I've spent my adult life bringing people together during the toughest times of their lives in disasters. Nowhere needs disaster relief more than Washington. No place needs to be brought together more than Congress. I don't claim to know everything, but I do know that name calling and partisan bickering aren't going to solve any problems."
The 4th District includes much of the eastern half of the Fort Smith metro area – including half of Alma and Crawford County – and includes Madison County in the Northwest Arkansas area.
Speaking from Hot Springs, the Dardanelle native said common sense and hard work were needed to fix Washington.
Asked how he would change the ways of Washington as just one of 435 members of the House, Witt said it would take more than him as an individual to affect change.
"You know, probably a single voice may not clean up Washington. But I think I have enough (experience) over the years working with the Republicans and Democrats and others that I have an opportunity to have a voice instantly and maybe help make a difference. And that's why I'm running. I think I can make a difference there and I think I can make a difference for the Fourth Congressional District."
It did not take long before questions from the media focused on the Affordable Care Act and Arkansas' expansion of Medicaid through the so-called "private option," which funds private insurance plans using federal dollars.
While the Democrat said he was against Obamacare in its current form and would have voted against the legislation, he was for the private option, pointing to it as an example of a bi-partisan solution to a complex problem.
And while Witt is against Obamacare in its current form, when asked what he would change about the law Witt could not cite examples.
"Improvements need to be made to that law and I look forward to working to make those changes. … I'm not going to get into the specifics of it right now because there's 2,200 pages to it and we've got to make sure that we're accurate on all the things that could either benefit or not benefit the people of the Fourth District."
Witt also addressed running for Congress in what has become an increasingly Republican-leaning state, saying that he believes voters will vote for the right person for the job.
"This is not about being a Democrat or Republican. This is about doing what's right and doing what we have to do to make a difference for the Fourth Congressional District. And I've had an opportunity to visit with many Democrats and many Republicans and so I think our message and our thoughts and ideas will resonate with both."
Prior to Witt's campaign announcement, the Republican Party of Arkansas was already pushing out a narrative of Witt being just another politician.
In a statement, Arkansas GOP Chairman Doyle Webb accused Witt of exploiting victims of Hurricane Katrina in order to make inflated profits for services his company, Witt Associates, provided to the state of Louisiana in the aftermath of the storm. The statement linked to an NBC News report, highlighting the alleged profiteering.
“The last thing hardworking Arkansas families need in Washington is just another self-serving politician like James Lee Witt. Anyone who could stomach turning a tragedy like Hurricane Katrina into an opportunity to exploit victims for a profit does not deserve to represent this great state.”
Witt said regardless of the allegations leveled against him and his company by Webb and the GOP, the amount of money spent was approved by the U.S. General Services Administration.
"All our rates in Louisiana or anywhere we worked, are approved by GSA rates, approved by FEMA, all competitively bid, and all participated in audits to ensure everything is and done appropriately."
Republican Beth Anne Rankin, who had been contemplating a race for the 4th District seat following a second place finish to Cotton in the 2012 primary and loss against then-U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, D-Prescott, in the 2010 general election, said today that she would not seek the Republican nomination in 2014.
The Democratic and Republican primaries will take place May 20, 2014. The winners from each primary will face off in the Nov. 4, 2014, general election.