If you walk into a meeting at the Arkansas House of Representative, Rep. Terry Rice (R-Waldron) would not be the first member to grab your attention.
Observers could see him quietly taking in the happenings of committee meetings and talking to colleagues in the back of the room. But this soft-spoken servant leadership style might be the key to his becoming the first Republican Speaker of the House.
Rice currently represents rural House District 62, just southeast of the Fort Smith area. He will return next year for his third and final term — before term limits apply — representing the newly drawn House District 21, which makes up roughly the same area. Rice is unopposed in both his primary and general election.
Rice has lived the Waldron his whole life raising two kids with his wife of almost 40 years. He tells me that now has four grandkids. He is the owner of Rice Furniture and Appliance stores and is past president of the Arkansas Home Furnishing Association.
But politics is in Rice’s blood with both his father, W.R. (Bud) Rice, and grandfather, W.S. Rice serving in the state legislature. Terry Rice is a Republican, but his father and grandfather served as Democrats.
Perhaps this heritage may help Rice in his next challenge of being elected Speaker. The election takes place next Friday (March 9) as the House meets to caucus after concluding its work for the fiscal session. Outgoing House members elect a Speaker-designate for the next year.
If the voting is straight party-line voting, Rice cannot win. Republicans have become a robust minority, but still only hold 46 of the 100 House seats. So Rice has to appeal to several Democrats to vote across party lines.
“I am running for Speaker of the House for the 89th General Assembly to work across party lines to find conservative solutions and consensus for the good of Arkansans,” said Rice in an interview this week.
“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the challenges we will address as an institution — balancing our budget, improving education, and ensuring that every person who is in need of a job can find one,” Rice stated in a letter addressed to all House members last fall. “Each of us, regardless of our party, was elected to faithfully and diligently serve all of our constituents. Rising unemployment is a serious problem that we can only solve together.”
Rice will be up against Rep. Darrin Williams (D-Little Rock), who my blogging counterpart Michael Cook has also profiled.
Like Rice, Williams also encouraged House members to vote in a bi-partisan manner, asking Republicans in a letter to consider in their decision “other qualities, such as proven leadership skills, the ability to work in a bi-partisan manner, a successful legislative track record, relevant work experiences, a strong educational background and the ability to work well with all members of the House.”
Next week’s voting will certainly be interesting to watch, but it might not be the end of the story. While the outgoing legislative body votes for the Speaker-designate, the Speaker is officially elected by the new legislature after the November election. And there is a strong possibility Republicans could become the majority party.
“The 88th General Assembly will judge the qualities they feel best meet the need for Speaker of the 89th General Assembly. It is up to the 89th General Assembly to approve the seating of the Speaker-designate,” said Rice.
Either way, we will see next week if enough Democrats will vote across party lines for this soft spoken colleague from Waldron. History is bound to be made either way.