Political life will be different for State Sen. Jim Hendren, I-Gravette, when the legislature reconvenes Monday. Last week during the snowstorms that shut down capitol activity, Hendren announced he was leaving the GOP and would operate as a political independent.
“I think it’s the way I can best serve Arkansas. The Republican Party, I still love. There’s great people in the party, and I know there’s a lot of people working hard to right the ship. But for me, I just feel like the work that I need to do in Arkansas, it’s going to be easier for me to do that from an independent platform, not bound to either party,” Hendren said in a Talk Business & Politics interview that aired Sunday (Feb. 21).
Hendren will lose his chairmanship of the Senate Insurance and Commerce Committee. Despite his seniority, Senate rules dictate that a majority party member must serve as chair.
“Look, I understand the consequences of my decisions and I’m willing to accept that,” he said.
The newly independent plans to re-engage on legislation though he understands he may not take the lead items such as hate crimes or tax reform.
“If I’m not part of the Republican Party and there is this partisanship, it does make me perhaps less effective when it comes to passing specific or controversial legislation,” Hendren said. “I will tell you that I still believe the majority of the people in the Arkansas Senate are going to vote for a piece of legislation if it’s good legislation, even if it’s brought by an independent or a Democrat. Not all. And some are absolutely not going to do it just because of that fact, and that’s part of the problem.”
“I’ve said all along this is not, to me, what’s important is not who is the first name on the bill or who presents the bill in committee. What’s important is that Arkansas pass hate crimes legislation. If there’s a better person to do that, particularly because of the change that I’m making with party affiliation, I 100% support that and will do whatever is necessary because I believe in the policy,” he added.
COMMON GROUND, GOVERNOR’S RACE
In announcing his exodus from the Republican Party, Hendren plans to form a new group for the “politically homeless” called Common Ground Arkansas. He’s not sure what the legal vehicle will be for the organization, but its aims are to “provide tools and support for candidates and elected officials who have that desire to find common ground, to work together, to work across the aisle.”
“I just believe that’s what makes government work, and right now there is no pressure from the center. All the pressure is from the extremes. Common ground is going to be an organization that comes to try to encourage and support candidates who want to work across the aisle for the good of Arkansas,” he said.
Hendren expects to roll out names of supporters for the group in the coming weeks.
“It’s going to be a credible group and it’s going to be a group that understands how Arkansas politics work and has seen the same transformation that I have observed over the last 20 years – a group that understands the need to bring some civility, some professionalism, some decency back to Arkansas politics,” Hendren said.
Could this be the vehicle for a rumored independent bid for Arkansas governor? Hendren said he’s unsure about that race for now, but he certainly won’t be in the GOP primary.
“Right now, I’ve kind of pushed that decision to the back burner because before anybody can win any serious race as an independent, there has to be some sort of platform, some sort of foundation, and I’m telling you there is a hunger for that in Arkansas,” he said.
“2020 polling shows almost as many people identify as Independents as Democrats and within 10% of Republicans, and there’s no place for those people to identify and to feel like they’re at home. So, we’re going to build the organization, we’re going to build the structure, and then we’ll worry on down the road whether or not that is a vehicle that I, or somebody else, could use not just for a gubernatorial race, but for an attorney general race or for any number of statewide races, but especially for legislative races,” Hendren said.
“That’s where I guess I see the biggest concern I have in Arkansas politics right now is I have seen the extreme – almost radicalization – of the legislature compared to what it was 10, 20, 30 years ago… That’s not indicative of the Arkansas people. When you look at the governors that we’ve elected, from Winthrop Rockefeller to Mike Beebe to Asa Hutchinson, we tend to elect centrist problem-solving people, but yet our legislature has been polarized to the point where it’s not reflective of what Arkansas is,” he added.
You can watch Hendren’s full interview in the video below.