Arkansas Democrats have experienced devastating losses during the last four election cycles, but the party’s chairman believes the trend will reverse in 2018.
Rep. Michael John Gray, D-Augusta, told Talk Business & Politics his party will compete in next year’s congressional races, and could pick off one of the four seats, all held by Republicans. He visited Craighead and Jackson counties this week to reinvigorate the “coffee shop” political model he said has created generations of notable Democrat politicians in the state.
“My goal is for the party to reconnect with voters. … A core Democratic value is to be able to think for yourself,” he said.
One of his main goals by the start of the next year is to create a “Contract with Arkansas.” It will be a comprehensive plan to improve the state as a whole, he said. A major problem looming for the state is crumbling infrastructure. Roads and bridges have to be repaired and replaced, and the costs will be enormous. Many rural parts of the state need upgrades to sewer and water lines. A lack of cell service in parts of the state, and lack of high speed internet access are detrimental to economic development.
“These are no longer luxuries. This is how we survive,” he said.
There are parts of the state that have limited access to emergency healthcare, and it’s unacceptable, Gray said. He said governance needs to turn from reactionary to visionary. Arkansas has crept up in some metrics such as education, and per capita income, but modest gains from being ranked “49th in one area to like 47th” are not good enough, he said.
“We have to be visionary … we can do better,” he said.
Arkansas is unique because politicians tend to be more pragmatic, and less influenced by national politics, he said. If a candidate like Roy Moore, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Alabama that has been accused of inappropriate contact by at least nine women, ran as a Democrat in Arkansas, the party would repudiate him, he said.
Democrats on the national level do a poor job of explaining the benefits of their positions, and legislation that has been passed. For instance, Obamacare has saved many rural hospitals and high paying jobs in rural Arkansas. Hundreds of thousands of state residents now have healthcare and the system has been successful in Arkansas, he said. Democrats have done a poor job explaining to people how this has benefitted their lives.
Arkansas Democrats also must develop a new retail politics model, he said. Powerful state Democrats in the past, such as former Gov. Mike Beebe, former U.S. Senators David Pryor, and Dale Bumpers, and former President Bill Clinton, were excellent at public policy, but the party as a whole was unable to explain the positive impacts of those policies to voters. That will have to change, Gray said.
He thinks the national political model needs to change, too.
“People are tired of politicians blaming the other guy. … We deserve better,” he said.
During the interview with TB&P, he made an interesting prediction. Jonesboro has been one of the fastest growing cities in Arkansas in terms of population and economic development. Gray believes Northeast Arkansas’ hub city will become the largest in Arkansas during the next 50 years. Other large cities in the state have natural and other obstacles, he said.
Cities in Northwest Arkansas, such as Fayetteville and Rogers, are in close proximity to other states and cities, and there are mountain barriers that could stifle growth. Little Rock has the Arkansas River with which to contend.
But Jonesboro has few natural barriers. It’s already the second largest city in the state in terms of square miles, and there’s more room to grow, he noted. Cities just a few miles away, such as Paragould, Trumann, Harrisburg, and others could eventually become part of Craighead County’s seat.