For generations Democrats dominated politics at the state and local level, with Northeast Arkansas considered by many to be the most Democratic section of a Democratic state. In 2008, the party’s dominance in NEA began to wane. A Republican wave overwhelmed the electorate in 2014, and four state house seats in and around Jonesboro changed parties for the first time in generations.
Jonesboro attorney Nate Looney hopes he can return district 58 back to the donkeys in November. Looney, 29, told Talk Business & Politics campaign finance reform will be his signature focus if he beats first-term Republican Rep. Brandt Smith, R-Jonesboro.
“We have two different approaches. He (Smith) is going to vote the party line no matter what,” Looney said. “I want to move our local community and state forward. Good ideas are not Republican or Democratic ideas. I believe I’m the person to do that.”
If voters elect Smith a second time, he will introduce a criminal victim notification bill. Smith told Talk Business & Politics a healthcare worker in the district was severely injured by a mentally ill patient several years ago. The bill would make it mandatory to notify healthcare workers when an attacker is released from jail or prison, he said. He admitted he doesn’t know often this occurs, but he thinks workers in this circumstance have a right to know.
“It is a good bill and demonstrates concern for these frontline healthcare workers who seek to help those in our communities suffering from mental illness,” Smith said.
In recent years, the state has stopped corporations from directly funding candidates, but several loopholes remain, Looney said. One loophole allows corporations to contribute to political action committees, PACS. Those PACS are then free to give money to which ever candidates they choose, he said.
Another problem is transparency, he said. Multiple PACS can be started by the same person, or persons, meaning a very wealthy donor can funnel money into campaigns, unhindered. If he’s elected, he’ll introduce legislation to stop these practices, he said.
“We’ve got to put a stop to this,” Looney said.
Smith said he supports infrastructure improvements in the district, but won’t support any tax increases to pay for them. There are already taxes in place on “road use items” such as tires, batteries, and others, he said. Those taxes should be earmarked for highway improvement projects, he said.
Looney supports expanded funding for Pre-kindergarten education. Studies have repeatedly shown that if children from poorer backgrounds are given educational assistance at a young age, their chances of graduating from high school and college are significantly increased, and their incarceration rates significantly decrease. He said it will cost the state money in the short-term, but it will save much more in the long-term.
Smith said the district and surrounding areas in Northeast Arkansas do need essential service infrastructure improvements, such as water and sewer lines, but he thinks spending more money on the problems isn’t the solution. Many of these systems are not properly maintained, he said, but the state representative didn’t offer any specific examples.
Some systems do need to be replaced, and county judges, mayors, and others need to petition the state for those funds through the proper channels, he said.
A firestorm erupted when Looney and Smith debated each other earlier this year at the NEA Political Animals meeting in Jonesboro. Looney accused Smith of hyper partisanship and said it wasn’t beneficial to the district. Smith responded by saying he was a proud Republican and he would vote the party line and he supported Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump.
When asked through an email on Tuesday if he ever deviated from the party platform, Smith declined to comment. Looney didn’t outline any specific he ways he might depart from the Democratic Party on votes, but he said he was open to voting against his party if it benefitted the residents in his district.
District 58 encompasses part of Craighead County. Smith defeated Harold Copenhaver in 2014 to take the seat. The candidates were slated to debate one more time in Jonesboro, but scheduling conflicts derailed it, according to Looney.