A 436-vote margin made the difference nearly two years ago as State Sen. Robert Thompson, D-Paragould, defeated Republican challenger Blake Johnson in the District 20 state senate race.
With two weeks to go before the November general election, both candidates are not taking anything for granted in a rematch of the 2012 race.
Johnson, a Corning farmer, is facing Thompson, a Paragould attorney and former deputy prosecuting attorney, in one of only four contested state Senate races this year in the Natural State.
State Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs is facing independent George Pritchett of Hot Springs in the District 14 seat, while former State Rep. Linda Collins-Smith, R-Pocahontas, is facing State Rep. James McLean, D-Batesville, in District 19. State Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, is also facing Conway Democrat Joel Tyler Pearson in the District 35 race this year.
As for District 20, Johnson said he believes momentum may be on his side this time.
“I feel like the people in Arkansas are conservative but they have always identified with the Democratic party. The Republican party is the conservative identifier in Arkansas now,” Johnson said, noting social issues have often changed party affiliation.
“There was politics and my faith. My faith was there before my politics was. But it is a matter of the future with societal issues, with same sex marriage and protecting human life. And we have to protect it. The citizens in the district feel the same way and feel they should be represented,” he said.
Thompson said he believes the momentum is on his side this year.
“It was close two years ago because there was a lot of outside spending. I was amazed by the independent expenditures, millions spent. But I feel like we have great support this time and have a great group of volunteers,” Thompson said.
The incumbent said voters have talked with him about a variety of issues while on the campaign trail.
“There are a lot of issues, two, perhaps three issues. Jobs and economic development have been a primary concern. Education is a broad category, with teacher insurance, schools and higher education. There are also transportation issues, the condition of our county roads and conditions of the interstates and state highways. Also, I have heard from people about law enforcement, with public safety and prisons,” Thompson said.
Both candidates are interested in working on state tax issues.
“A lot of the proposals out there are good,” Thompson said. “I think that any proposal ought to be geared toward looking first at what are the goals? Is it fair and equitable, does it promote economic development? They must be worthy goals while meeting the needs of the budget. And there are things we can do to be competitive with other states.”
Thompson said the reduction of the state’s grocery tax has helped people, particularly lower-income residents.
Thompson said while he had no specific proposal, he was open to working on any tax issue going before the legislature.
Johnson said he wants to see something done with the overall system.
“People are overburdened with a 6.5% sales tax and a 7% income tax,” Johnson said, noting border-states like Tennessee and Texas do not have an income tax. “At 7%, you reach it at $32,000.”
Johnson said the state had a $70 million surplus this past year and that the surplus came from the taxpayers of Arkansas.
Both candidates are divided on the Private Option issue.
“They have argued there is competition in the Private Option, but it did not happen,” said Johnson. “In economics, they say a rising tide lifts all ships. The economy grew because of freedom and markets. When they interfere, it does not help.”
Thompson said he supports the law.
“It is important for healthcare in my district. I met with the administrators at the four hospitals in my district (Arkansas Methodist Medical Center, Lawrence Memorial, Piggott Regional and Five Rivers Medical Center in Pocahontas) and each, to a man, said it was vital to keep their hospitals open. It is important for rural areas as well with economic development. It was also important for those communities,” Thompson said.
Thompson said a key issue in the future involves workforce training and education collaborating on projects.
“I have worked with HR managers and plant managers for years and without fail, the number one issue they ask is ‘Can I get a qualified workforce? Will they be adequately prepared?’ You can give every incentive and infrastructure benefit, like a railroad spur or a highway,” Thompson said, but workforce is key.
“BRTC (Black River Technical College campus in Paragould), they have been a vital part of the growth of our area….. We now see the intersection between the increased cost of higher education and the need of our workforce. You could have kids graduating high school and within 18 to 20 months, could make $18 to $20 an hour,” he said.
Johnson said he supports choice in education.
“Choice in education is feared in Arkansas. My mother was a 37-year teacher and my wife is a teacher,” Johnson said. “There should not be fear in competition. Fear should not come from educators because competition breeds excellence. If you are in education for the kids and the dollars, the fear should not be there. It should make us better. There are high expectations of public schools because they use our tax dollars. They are the standard. I know there is fear of the public that they are not run under the same regulations. But they need the same regulations. But we should like competition.”
The two candidates were e-mailed questions about some of the key issues. Here are their responses.
Q: The issue of highways and highway construction have been discussed a lot in recent months, especially with work on U.S. 67 from Walnut Ridge to Little Rock and U.S. 412, which runs through Greene County. How does the state of Arkansas prioritize those projects and several others around the state, with a dwindling revenue stream and the need even bigger?
Johnson: The Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department is given charge to prioritize these projects. The citizens of Arkansas passed a half-cent sales tax and bond issue a couple of years ago to allow many projects around the state to continue and use current funds for the maintenance of our current obligations. I think the projects are prioritized based on traffic count, population served and commerce. National defense issues also play a role in federal highway prioritization. A growing economy and conservative leadership will increase revenue for the state without increasing the tax burden. With Arkansas’s private sector growing faster than our state’s governmental structure, the state should have revenue to provide all needed state programs.
Thompson: Highway construction and maintenance are some of the biggest challenges Arkansas will face in the coming years. Congress appears ready to cut significantly funding for highways. During the next legislative session, I am ready to listen to different ideas on how Arkansas should face its transportation challenges, in light of the unfortunate decisions being made in Washington.
Northeast Arkansas will benefit from the Connecting Arkansas program, approved by the voters in November 2012. This program will provide that Highway 412 between Paragould and Walnut Ridge will be widened to four lanes, and within the next couple of years we will see the opening of the expansion of Highway 67 up to Walnut Ridge. My priorities for the next few years will be widening Highway 49 from Paragould north through Rector and Piggott, and the expansion of Highway 67 north through Randolph and Clay Counties to the Missouri state line.
Q: The state has seen its share of ethical scandals in the past couple of years, ranging from Democrats Hudson Hallum and Paul Bookout to Republican Mark Darr. What would you do to help change a public mindset in which people believe that politicians are crooks?
Johnson: I have tried to deal with my personal and business life conservatively and with integrity. I plan to do the same as a public servant.
Thompson: It is imperative that Arkansas have confidence in its elected leaders, and all officeholders should be held to the highest ethical standards. Every session that I have served in the State Senate, I have supported ethics bills and clean-government measures to regulate the actions of lobbyists and prevent abuse of power by legislators.
During the next session, I believe we should provide the state Ethics Commission with additional resources to oversee actions of public officials. I also believe it would be useful to provide more training to legislators and others on state ethics laws.
Q: This year’s senate race is a rematch of a race in 2012 where Sen. Thompson won by around 450 votes. With many political experts looking at Northeast Arkansas as a battleground this year, what is your opinion on the region’s political future?
Johnson: I feel like Arkansas has always been conservative. National liberal party platforms and the policy developed through them are no longer able to be insulated from the citizens of Arkansas because we have become a two-party state, leaning toward conservative Republican policy. Our region is very traditionally rooted and we will be slow to change our political affiliation, but political and social events that have occurred in our nation have forced this to happen at a high rate. Once conservative Republican leadership is established, I feel the majority of this region’s citizens will identify with the Republican party.
Thompson: I expect over the coming years that Northeast Arkansas will continue to be a battleground area with plenty of contested political races, and I think that’s a good thing. Voters need choices, and no one political party has a monopoly on good ideas.