Ross rails against ‘raw politics’ during stops in Fort Smith, Greenwood

story and photos by Michael Tilley

A long pause ensued after Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Arkansas Congressman Mike Ross was asked his thoughts about President Obama’s State of the Union address. Ross rolled a cough drop around in his mouth and stared ahead for a few seconds before replying: “I think that, you know, it needed more substance.”

Once the reply was formed, Ross was on his message.

“What I didn’t hear, and what I think this country really needs right now is for someone to say, ‘It’s time to put partisan politics aside.’ The extremes in both parties have created partisanship and dysfunction in Washington,” Ross said during a Wednesday afternoon interview with The City Wire. “It’s time for people to start talking to one another instead of at one another. And that’s really what my campaign for governor is all about. I’m not running to be governor for the Democrats and I’m not running to be governor for the Republicans. I’m running to be governor for all the people in Arkansas.”

Ross, the presumptive Democratic nominee for Arkansas’ next governor, was in Sebastian County on Wednesday (Jan. 29) for his first significant campaign swing through what is considered a Republican part of the state. It’s also a second home of sorts to Republican Asa Hutchinson, his likely opponent in the November general election to determine who follows the term-limited Gov. Mike Beebe (D).

In the 2006 gubernatorial election, Mike Beebe defeated Hutchinson by capturing almost 56% of the vote. Hutchinson garnered just short of 41% of the statewide vote, but beat Beebe in Sebastian County by a 51-47 margin.

Ross’ first public campaign stop on Wednesday was at the Hamilton House, a location in Fort Smith where children are brought who may have been abused. At Hamilton House, children can meet safely with legal and law enforcement authorities and may receive medical and therapeutic help.

Jackie Hamilton, executive director of Hamilton House, leads Ross on a tour. She shows him the hundreds of handprints on the wall, with each handprint made by a child who came through the center. She tells Ross that Hamilton House is one of 13 in the state, but is likely the busiest in the state. They had 447 cases the first year, with 749 in year two and 702 cases last year. For each child they see and protect from further abuse, Hamilton said there are around nine children who are living in an abusive environment.

Hamilton also told Ross about laws needed to better protect the children, such as a law to “tighten the confidentiality rules” so that the testimony of children is not used in a way that harms the child or other innocent family members.

“You raised several things that need to be addressed legislatively,” Ross said, adding that if elected he would be committed to working with all groups to “get the rules tightened.”

Ross, along with Sebastian County Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck, placed their handprints on a “Helping Hands” wall within the Hamilton House office. And while Ross’ message is one of political bipartisanship, he did joke that he did not want red paint for his handprint.

The next stop was George’s restaurant in Fort Smith. The group of politicos at George’s included Rep. George McGill, D-Fort Smith, and Lee Webb, a member of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

Ross visited each table. Hubert Blankenship of Van Buren was quick to express his displeasure with Congress and the federal government.

“If you think you’re fed up with Washington, I quit my job,” Ross responded, referring to his decision to not seek re-election to Arkansas’ 4th Congressional District. “I’m tired of the extremes on both side.”

With the next campaign stop set for Greenwood and time running short, Ross’ sweet tea and what remained of his burger and fries were packaged to go.

Ed Wilkinson, president of Greenwood-based Farmers Bank and a former Arkansas legislator who served with Ross in the Legislature, introduced the gubernatorial candidate to a crowd of around 35 gathered in the bank’s board room. The crowd included Dr. Paul Beran, chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.

Wilkinson informed the crowd that Ross was a fifth generation Methodist with a son preparing for seminary.

“Mike Ross is about as Methodist as you can get,” Wilkinson said, followed by crowd laughter.

Ross said he and his wife, Holly, have careers outside of politics. Holly works as a pharmacist in Prescott.

“We’re normal people. We still work for a living,” Ross said.

On the theme of working, Ross said Arkansas’ workforce training programs should again include a “vo-tech style” of skills training. He said “college, the military or the minimum wage” shouldn’t be the only options facing young Arkansans or those forced to look for new jobs.

Between the Farmers Bank stop and a visit to the Greenwood city offices, Ross talked briefly with The City Wire about Arkansas’ private option plan and Obamacare – two issues likely to be key debate points during the race.

In the 2013 Arkansas General Assembly, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers, led by Republicans Sen. Michael Lamoureux and Rep. Davy Carter, worked with Gov. Beebe to push through a plan that allows Arkansas health officials to steer Medicaid expansion funds from the Affordable Care Act – aka Obamacare – into private health insurance plans. Arkansas officials obtained permission in early 2013 from federal officials to use Medicaid expansion money promised in the federal health care law to subsidize insurance for low-income Arkansas workers. The money would help currently uninsured citizens who earn up to 138% of the federal poverty level to obtain insurance. By some state estimates, that universe could include as many as 250,000 Arkansans.

The funding for the private option narrowly passed both chambers of the Arkansas General Assembly in 2013 and is expected to come up for renewal funding in February 2014.

The more conservative Republican members of the Arkansas Legislature are seeking to block funding for the plan, a move that could leave the state without a mechanism to process increased federal funding of the Medicaid program in Arkansas.

Hutchinson recently said claims of benefits from the private option plan are the result of “fuzzy math.” During the Wednesday interview, Ross was quick to take exception with the attacks on the private option plan.

“I was offended by that,” Ross said of Hutchinson’s fuzzy math remark. “And I think the majority of the people in Arkansas were offended by that. I trust Gov. Beebe, and when he says that it’s going to save the state $89 million, I believe him. Plus, I’ve looked at the numbers … And so, who are the people going to believe? Are they going to believe a career politician lobbyist who has been running for statewide office for 28 years? Or are they going to believe a governor who has got the highest job-approval rating of any governor in America who has said he is never running for anything ever again?”

But Ross also acknowledged the private option connection to Obamacare.

“Obamacare has never been popular in Arkansas. I understand that. That’s why as a Congressman I voted against it four times and voted to repeal it 23 times. But look, this is not Obamacare. This is an Arkansas solution written by Republicans and Democrats in Arkansas that’s going to make healthcare available to a quarter million people that are trying to do the right thing and stay off welfare but they are working the jobs with no benefits. And it’s going to save the state of Arkansas $89 million dollars a year. I mean, it’s a no brainer. So anybody that would oppose that (Arkansas’ private option) is opposing it not based on public policy. Their decision has to be based on nothing more than raw politics.”

Ross is scheduled to campaign in Fort Smith and Van Buren on Thursday. Members of his campaign staff said Ross plans to make “frequent trips” to the Fort Smith area during the next nine months.