State of the State 2024: Amid Republican dominance, citizens turn to petitions

by John Brummett ([email protected]) 1,017 views 

Editor’s note: The State of the State series provides reports twice a year on Arkansas’ key economic sectors. The series publishes stories to begin a year and stories in July/August to provide a broad mid-year update on the state’s economy. Link here for the State of the State page and previous stories.

The group is “ridiculously diverse,” as former flame-throwing Republican state Rep. Nate Bell, now an iconoclastic independent activist revealing a thoughtful side, puts it.

He’s the person who kind of started it – the drafting committee, that is, for a citizens’ initiative for a constitutional amendment to guarantee freedom of information. The group seeks to enshrine the late Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller’s proud Freedom of Information statute of the late 1960s in the state Constitution. It seeks to protect the people’s right to know from the ruling politicians’ interest in running the government with the convenience of secrecy.

Bell might even have started something broader that hints of a movement.

He was sitting at his home in Lincoln in Northwest Arkansas, recently moved from Mena, when he beheld Gov. Sarah Sanders’ push in a special session last year to pass power-play legislation to weaken the Freedom of Information Act. She wanted to protect herself and her family from security disclosures and empower state agencies to keep more information private. A lawyer named Matt Campbell, trained in investigations and possessed of his own blog, had gotten deeply under her skin.

Bell had worked years before on an ethics reform initiative with David Couch of Little Rock, a left-of-center lawyer long adept at suing nursing homes. Over the last decade-and-a-half, Couch has emerged as an expert in getting citizen initiatives on the ballot and often passed. The state’s voters approved a higher minimum wage, medical marijuana and new casinos.

Couch got stymied only occasionally, once by a head-scratching ruling by the Arkansas Supreme Court.

He was leading an effort toward the ballot in 2020 for a constitutional amendment to turn over legislative redistricting to an independent commission – thus removing it from the self-serving control of an overwhelming and self-perpetuating Republican incumbent majority. The initiative got thrown out by the state Supreme Court on the basis that signature canvassers had certified only that they had been given background checks, not that they had passed the background checks.

Typically, background checks gather data and report it. They don’t give a grade. They don’t say “he’s clean.” They merely say, “here you go; here’s what we found.”

Thus, the overpowering Republican governmental stranglehold kept control of redistricting after the population shifts of the 2020 Census. It protected its favorable incumbent districts. For congressional districting, the Legislature split a concentration of black votes in southern Pulaski County three ways, into the 1st, 2nd and 4th Districts.

In that context, remember one word: “overreach.”

That word plays into what may be percolating into a political movement by which citizens’ initiatives – rather than the opposing political party — would try to serve as the check and balance against overwhelming and deeply ideological one-party control that goes too far.

Since resentment of overreach of power is not partisan but human nature, especially in cussedly independent-minded Arkansas, this emerging movement could become the preferred check and balance based on a galvanizing premise of protecting or enhancing the power of the people against politicians’ arrogance.

Another major proposed amendment, a divisive cultural one to ease severe abortion restrictions taking effect in the state under the repeal of Roe v. Wade, would seem to have only an outside shot of passage. Abortion is generally opposed by a majority of Arkansas voters. If it has a chance, though, it likely would rest on the same premise that prevailed in Ohio, Kentucky and Kansas – that voters not favoring abortion generally chose to support some exceptions because they disapproved of … yes … legislative overreach, in this case by Republican legislatures refusing to grant permissions for rape, incest and fatal fetal anomaly.

This citizens’ initiative movement seems to be gaining steam despite the Republican efforts in recent years to restrict or stymie it with more vigorous regulation of signature requirements and more finicky editing by the Republican attorney general.

It might begin to plug the gap left by the mathematically irrelevant Arkansas Democratic Party. More than mathematically irrelevant, with not even enough legislative votes to block an appropriation requiring a three-fourths majority vote, the state Democratic Party is for now paralyzed by cultural alienation in white rural Arkansas through its association with the national Democratic Party.

Bell sat recently in a coffee shop in Little Rock’s River Market to talk for this article about the FOI initiative and perhaps the broader movement. He remarked that he’d sat at a different table in that very coffee shop a few days before and told Chris Jones, the failed Democratic gubernatorial candidate last time who wants to run again more effectively next time, that state Democrats would not succeed again until they broke free of the national party and started hanging out with – just for examples – loggers coming out of the Ouachita woods and working folks changing shifts at the mills.

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So, upon seeing what Sanders was up to on the freedom-of-information law, Bell called Couch and said: “This cannot stand.” He said he knew Arkansas people and that they could see when a politician was going too far.

It turned out that protecting the people’s right to know about their government is an obsession of the government-resenting hard right, from the libertarian to the Trumpian, as well as a strongly held principle of progressives who were instrumental in the reform movement in the late 1960s that produced the FOI. And now the remnants of that movement distrust the right-wing ideology of the 80 percent conservative Republican majority of the state Legislature.

Nonpartisan common ground thereby opened.

The point is that the “ridiculously diverse” drafting committee, the one that wrote the amendment and then revised it as Attorney General Tim Griffin hyper-edited it, spanned the ideological spectrum.

You had Bell, the conservatively inclined but independent-minded advocate; Couch, the trained disrupter of the legislative establishment from a left-of-center philosophy; John Tull, a veteran lawyer specializing in the FOI; Jen Standerfer, a longtime legislative bill-drafter who had moved from writing whatever bills legislators wanted to private practice writing constitutional amendments she wanted; Clarke Tucker, the moderately liberal Democratic state senator who is trained in FOI law and experienced by necessity in how to work with Republican legislators; Ashley Wimberley of the Arkansas Press Association comprising long-suffering newspaper publishers in the digital revolution, and Robert Steinbuch, a vigorous libertarian and law professor who has established a public profile writing a fiery, no-holds-barred column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that peels the hide from government and corporate sources he finds abusive.

This group never had an absence from a meeting. It never took a vote that wasn’t unanimous. Other differences aside, it agreed passionately on transparent government. And the members became pals.

Standerfer said, as if surprised herself: “Robert Steinbuch is my friend. Nate Bell is my friend.”

She said the drafting work “was the most refreshing experience I’ve had in a long time.” She says it caused her to imagine what Arkansas once was — a place where people got along on a shared humanity without the alienation of differing political views. She said Steinbuch turned out to write in one tone and communicate in person in a different one.

Couch said working on the drafting committee “was the funnest experience I’ve ever had.”

Tucker agreed about the abundance of good feeling, but said, just for the record, that he’d been working that way as best he could with Republican legislative colleagues for years.

He said – and Couch, Bell and Standerfer agreed – that the people of Arkansas are not as hardened on the right as is the Legislature. The right becomes inordinately powerful, Tucker explained, because pragmatic Republican legislators fear losing primaries for taking positions that their hard-right constituents at home would see as obliging to the evil Democrats. Getting called a RINO is fatal in the primary, then Democrats are hapless in the general election in trying to beat any Republican, hard-right or less so.

(For the record, Tucker dissents on the premise of state Democratic Party irrelevance. He clings to hope for his party. He worked on the FOI group as a supplement to, not as a substitute for, Democratic Party work.)

The FOI drafting committee intends to stay together in some way for one purpose both narrow and potentially vast – to protect the people when their interests are being ill-served by overreach.

Bell says he has a list of 22 items representing legislative actions that he believes violate the will or interests of the people. The job for this drafting committee, or something that grows out of it, is to consider those matters, determine whether there is conceptual agreement and no untenable policy differences, then do the hard work of repeal by citizen initiative.

If there is any chance for the proposed citizens’ initiative to alter Sanders’ school-voucher plan called LEARNS – to impose the standards applicable to public schools on participating private and church schools – it could very well rest on the people’s sense that Sanders and the Legislature over-reached with that big all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it omnibus bill. It seemed rather shoved down the throat.

Meantime, archconservatives are trying to get in the act with an initiative to require paper ballots and restrict absentee voting – to curb alleged cheating by Democrats and assure a backup plan if the Russians or Chinese hack our electronic voting system.

And, if that’s not enough, Couch just this week filed a citizen initiative for a ballot issue to make future citizen initiatives for ballot issues easier.

It all presents conceivably a new normal in Arkansas politics, with the overwhelming conservative Republican majority contested not by the other party, at least in that other party’s currently pitiable state, but by regular folks aswarm across the state with petitions seeking signatures.

Bell said the people of Arkansas react to individual issues, not political parties. He calculates that Republicans are in total control not because everyone rushes to be Republican, but because the Democrats currently offer no effective resistance on individual issues, laden as they are with national Democratic reputation.

So, rather than try to coax a fellow citizen to be a Democrat, instead you hand him a pen and a petition and ask him to sign to stop the government from keeping secrets from him. That’s a more plausible transaction at present.

Editor’s note: The author of this article is a regular columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. This article appears in Talk Business & Politics annual State of the State series.