Campaign trail shaping Rep. Cavenaugh’s approach to first term in the House

by George Jared ([email protected]) 232 views 

When State House District 60 Rep. Francis “Fran” Cavenaugh, R-Walnut Ridge, arrived in Little Rock earlier this month to begin her freshman term in the Arkansas General Assembly, she didn’t know what to expect. Cavenaugh, 54, had unseated popular incumbent James Ratliff, D-Imboden, in a district that includes portions of Lawrence, Sharp, Greene, and Randolph counties.

“I was surprised by how extraordinarily helpful the other reps were with me … and I’m not just talking about Republicans. The Democrats have been very helpful to me too,” Cavenaugh told Talk Business & Politics.

The first termer has not proposed any legislation yet, but she has been conducting a lot of research, she said. Cavenaugh said she supports Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s plan to cut more than $50.5 million in taxes. Part of his plan includes tax credits for low income earners, and she thinks it’s a key part of the proposal.

“We have a lot of low income families in our district,” she said. “It may not seem like a lot of money to some, but for those families it means a lot.”

Cavenaugh considers herself a fiscal conservative, and as a general rule she supports tax cuts. But, lawmakers need to be leery if those tax cuts come at the expense of children or the elderly, she said.

“I don’t want services to our children or our elderly cut … when we cut taxes we always need to be careful,” she said. “It seems like programs for children and the elderly are always cut first.”

Poverty and the lack of economic development in her home county led Cavenaugh into politics. Before her election in November, Cavenaugh spent much of her professional life as a businesswoman. She is the CFO of Cavenaugh Auto Group. The group has several vehicle dealerships in Walnut Ridge, Black Rock, and Jonesboro. She started working with The Children’s Shelter in Walnut Ridge and served with the Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce several years ago.

The deplorable conditions some of the children who came to live in the shelter left an indelible mark on her, she said. Many had no chance to rise out of those circumstances because the economic conditions have been dire in large swaths of Northeast Arkansas, she said. Counties and towns in the district had no money or incentives to offer job creating businesses, she said.

Cavenaugh set out to change the district’s course. Standing in her way was the popular Ratliff and generations of Democratic control in the four counties that comprise the district. Two things shocked her while she campaigned – the roads, and the living conditions of so many in the region.

“The roads were bad, and I’m not just talking about the state roads,” she said. “The county roads were in really bad shape as well … you can’t understand poverty like that until you see it with your own eyes.”

The four counties in the district have similar populations, demographics, education levels, and economic conditions, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Lawrence County, as an example has an estimated population of about 18,000 residents. Nearly 23.7% of residents live in poverty, and the median household income in the county is $32,379 per year, more than $23,000 below the national average tabulated by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Cavenaugh asked voters to consider her “as a person” and not someone from one political party or another. Her argument worked.

The electorate in the area has trended toward the Republican Party in recent cycles and she tallied 5,110 votes, or 50.8% cast, a narrow win, according to the Lawrence County Clerk’s Office.

Cavenaugh plans to tackle economic development, education, and highways and roads during her inaugural term. There has been recent chatter about expanded funding for the state’s pre-K program. Cavenaugh said she might be able to support a funding increase, but it needs to be studied, she said.

“We only have so much money in our budget,” she said.

Cavenaugh wouldn’t support any mandate that all school districts institute a pre-K program in their districts, she said. School districts should be free to choose if they’ll have the program or not.

Vocational training in the state needs to be expanded, she believes. Many students don’t need to get a traditional, four-year degree to earn a high income. Highway improvements, and road maintenance, a subject seldom broached, will also be priorities for the new state representative.

Throughout her life, Cavenaugh hasn’t been bashful about her opinions and she thinks it will serve her well in the 91st General Assembly. Any opinions she develops will be steeped in thorough research and deep contemplation, she said.

“I don’t think anybody who knows me would describe me as meek or mild,” she said with a laugh.