Sen. Ingram reflects on political career, laments divisive politics

by George Jared ([email protected]) 912 views 

Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis. Photo courtesy Arkansas State Senate.

When W.K. “Bill” Ingram won a special election in 1963 to serve out a State Senate term, he would often bring a special guest with him to the state capitol: his son, Keith. The first time Keith Ingram stepped on the State Senate floor, he was in awe. He enjoyed those days so much he would even skip school to hobnob with other senators and staff.

Little did the youngest Ingram know someday he would serve in that same governmental body as a representative of West Memphis and the surrounding community and as minority leader for the Democratic caucus in the State Senate. Sen. Keith Ingram, 66, has announced he will retire when his term ends at the end of 2022.

There are several reasons why Ingram said he thinks this is the time not to seek re-election. At the top of the list is the divisive, partisan politics that infiltrated from the national level and into the Arkansas Legislature. He said the prospect of dealing with a new incoming governor and all the changes in personnel and policy making didn’t appeal to him either.

“I’ve always been a builder. I’ve always wanted to make things better,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it for awhile. This last special session sealed it for me.”

The Ingram family has been one of the stalwart political families in Eastern Arkansas for six decades. W.K. Ingram served in the State Senate until his death in 1981. He was replaced by his son, Kent, who served from 1981-1990. Keith Ingram was elected mayor of West Memphis in 1987 and served through 1994. Keith returned to public office when he was elected to the Arkansas House in 2008. He was then elected to the State Senate in 2012 where he was later installed as the minority leader.

“The last few years, serving the citizens of District 24 has been a lifelong dream. I was raised by parents who understood the need to serve and give back, and as a young man, I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to see public service in action. I worked my first campaign when I was nine, and the first vote I ever cast was in an Arkansas State Senate race — for my father,” Keith said.

One of the signature pieces of legislation passed during Sen. Keith Ingram’s tenure was Katie’s Law. The law requires the collection of a DNA sample from those who are arrested or charged with capital murder, first-degree murder, kidnapping or first- and second-degree sexual assault.

“Katie’s Law is something I’m very proud of,” he said.

Competitive pay for state police, economic development support under Amendment 82, and the passage of the Medicaid expansion in Arkansas are other signature accomplishments during his time, he said.

Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis.

Ingram believes there are two central issues that will determine the growth and prosperity in the Arkansas Delta region in the coming decades. Those two issues are healthcare and education. Employers will not locate businesses in areas where the population isn’t educated and where the population isn’t healthy, he said.

The Democratic Party dominated state politics during the elder Ingrams time in the legislature and when Keith arrived in Little Rock in 2009 the party still maintained solid control. That eroded during the next several election cycles as Republicans swept into power for the first time ever on the state level.

There have been many changes through the years in the legislature but the most notable is the lack of civility, Keith said. When his father and brother served and even when he first got to the State House, members from both parties spent a lot of time together. Camaraderie led to strong bonds between lawmakers, even those from opposing parties or those who had opposing views. Often, a senator could go before the assembled body and argue for a bill and get a couple of senators to change their minds at the last moment. Now, bills are rammed through with only a few dissenting votes cast.

“I don’t think this is how our forefathers intended us to govern,” he said.

Some of the bills passed during the regular session have caused the state more harm than good, Keith said. One was a bill that prohibits gender transition medical procedures for those under the age of 18. Act 626 of 2021 bans the provision of gender transition procedures for minors, though it does allow them for those “born with a medically verifiable disorder of sex development.” Gov. Asa Hutchinson vetoed the bill, but it was overridden. The law has been challenged in court.

“The transgender legislation was horrific,” he said. “I thought it was misguided and tragic. … These are needless, divisive pieces of legislation.”

The national narrative from the Republican Party has been that there were voting irregularities during the last election. This has led to lawmakers in Arkansas attempting to remove local government control of elections and placing it in the hands of state officials, he said.

“This has been a pattern with the Republican Party. Strip local governments and move that power to the state level,” he said.

Although he only has this year left in office, Keith Ingram said he has several objectives. One longtime goal, the creation of a third bridge spanning from Crittenden County into Shelby County, Tenn., is at the forefront. There were efforts to shut down the Interstate 55 bridge several years ago, and Keith said he fought such efforts. That would have been a disastrous decision in light of the Interstate 40 bridge closure in May of 2021.

The I-40 bridge closure brought home the impacts that bridges have on the economy in eastern Arkansas, he said. Keith didn’t offer specifics about what he planned to do to get another bridge built, but it’s the kind of project that he might work on even after he leaves office.

Sen. Keith Ingram has not ruled out a future run for public office or volunteering for some other role in public life. He knows one thing. He hopes when the State Senate convenes next year that each senator when they walk into the chamber feels the same way he did nearly 60 years ago.

“I will always carry that feeling with me, that sense of awe when I walk onto the [Senate] floor,” he said. “It’s just like 1963.”

Editor’s note: This story was first published in the Feb. 2022 print edition of Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics.