Grant Tennille, the former economic development chief under Gov. Mike Beebe who helped bring Big River Steel to Arkansas, was elected chair of the Democratic Party of Arkansas and said he will use his “tons of relationships” to build the party in a solidly red state.
Tennille defeated Jim Wallace of Eureka Springs at the Democrats’ State Committee meeting held Saturday (Oct. 2). The previous chair, Michael John Gray, had left to become the executive director of Liberty and Justice for Arkansas, a group whose purpose is to “combat Trumpism” and “defeat Sarah Huckabee Sanders,” a Republican candidate for governor.
Tennille said in an interview he intends to work full-time as Democratic Party chair, an unpaid position. He said his “first order of business” is to raise money, get the headquarters in order, and return the staff to full strength.
“I think a lot of it quite honestly is going to be me on the telephone,” he said. “I have tons of relationships all the way across this state, and there are lots of Democrats who have expressed interest to me in my running and have told me that they’ll be there if I’m elected. And now that I’m elected, I’m going to be calling them up and saying, ‘Time to write that check.’”
Tennille received a letter of support from Beebe, who wrote, “For Grant, there is no job too big, no job too small; he’s trustworthy, capable, and ferociously loyal.”
Tennille takes over a party that dominated Arkansas politics for a century and a half from the end of the Civil War until 2010, when the state began to flip. Today, Republicans control all statewide and congressional offices and four-fifths of the Arkansas Legislature.
He said the party needs to reconnect with its base and be inclusive and pro-business. He said it has an opportunity to gain offices in Northwest Arkansas, traditionally a Republican stronghold. He said the party is attracting candidates, it has a contested primary for governor, and he expects a contested primary in the secretary of state’s race.
Tennille criticized Republicans’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic and said Democrats should oppose Republican extremists in the Legislature. He said Democrats will support investments in rural infrastructure and will oppose Republican efforts to end the state’s income tax.
“I certainly think that, as it stands right now, we’re the party of facts,” he said. “We’re the party that supports science. We’re the party that thinks that we ought to think rationally about our challenges. And I’m not seeing a whole lot of that from the other side. And so I think it’s incumbent upon us to stand up and tell people what we believe, and I think that there are a strong percentage of Arkansans who agree with us.”
Tennille was a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in the 1990s before joining the communications staff of Gov. Mike Huckabee – a Republican and, ironically, the father of Sanders, who is running for governor this year. Tennille said he was a Democrat at the time but knew he wanted to be actively involved in the process, and he was loyal to Rex Nelson, Huckabee’s communications director and a former editor at the Democrat-Gazette.
Tennille left the governor’s office to work for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, then worked in the telecom industry and helped a friend in Birmingham start a business. He returned to Arkansas in 2007 to work for Beebe, holding several positions and then serving as the liaison with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. When AEDC Director Maria Haley died unexpectedly, Tennille became interim director and then director. He said his work helping bring the Big River Steel plant to Mississippi County comprised the better part of three years.
Tennille then owned a consulting company that helped companies find Arkansas locations. He said he has worked the last three years as an unpaid economic development advisor for Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott.