You have to listen closely these days to tell a Democratic politician from a Republican. Such is the state of politics in Arkansas today. Democrats have always had their differences with the views of some national party leaders, but they were still able to succeed and even dominate elections with the Democratic label.
That was perhaps a carryover from the Civil War aftermath, when northern “carpetbaggers” associated with the Republican Party, came into the South and took control of government. Democrats like Strom Thurmond, George Wallace and our own Orval Faubus rode southern indignation and segregation into power and maintained it as their national party was reforming itself.
Now politics has come full circle. The Republicans dominate the South again, but from a different perspective, and Democrats are struggling to find their voice.
They sound a lot like Republicans.
That’s why I asked Jackie McPherson, Democratic candidate for the 1st Congressional seat, on Friday what his background as a member of the party was and why he was running under the party label. His success as a politician came as an alderman and now mayor in Heber Springs where, like many municipalities, electoral politics is nonpartisan.
McPherson, 55, was addressing the Northeast Arkansas Political Animals Club, attempting, as most Arkansas Democrats do, to distance himself from the president of his party, Barack Obama, and especially Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act.
He would have voted against the ACA, McPherson said, but he acknowledged that the law is here to stay so he’d work to improve it. In fact, that’s what the Republican majority in the General Assembly has done over the past two sessions, creating and then upholding the “private option” alternative for Arkansas’ version.
McPherson said he had been raised as a Democrat but didn’t think the party had left him so much as it had become dominated by people whose views didn’t line up with those of Arkansans. He said there are “still a lot of Democrats out there,” but added that if the Democrats regain a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, he won’t support California Rep. Nancy Pelosi as speaker.
“We need someone who will work across the aisle,” he said.
And that seems to be the theme of his campaign against the incumbent, Rick Crawford, who is seeking a third term after becoming the first Republican to take the office since Reconstruction. McPherson pins his hopes on the belief that the people of the 1st District want a representative who is independent of both parties.
In his introduction to the Political Animals, he stressed the need for bipartisan cooperation in Congress to “stop the gridlock, stop the fighting, come together for common ground.” That’s where he contends he would differ from Crawford.
The son of farmers, McPherson was especially critical of Crawford’s position on the Farm Bill debate of 2013. Crawford was caught between the need for a new Farm Bill in his district and prevailing sentiment in the Republican-controlled House to separate the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program from the legislation.
Crawford voted with his party for a bill that would have taken SNAP out of the Farm Bill, even though that action had no chance of passing the Senate. Later he served on a conference committee putting together a compromise that finally passed.
In his Jonesboro appearance and earlier campaign events McPherson offered a few viewpoints that would distinguish him as a Democrat, including these:
• He favors an increase in the Arkansas minimum wage from $6.25 an hour to $8.50, as proposed in a pending initiative, but not the national Democratic push for $10.10.
• Making the federal government more efficient and effective doesn’t come from budget cuts, but rather by investing in infrastructure to reduce deficits.
• He would support legislation mandating that women be paid equally for performing the same jobs as men.
• Vouchers for private school attendance would be a disaster for rural public schools in Arkansas.
• Federal highway funding is critical for the rural 1st Congressional District, noting recent cuts of four major NEA projects.
Just before he announced his candidacy, a Republican operative wrote that the Democrats had found a “sacrificial lamb” to run against Crawford. Indeed, there’s reason to believe that McPherson has an uphill climb, if only because he lacks name recognition. That will be difficult to overcome in a geographically large district, especially without a big campaign fund.
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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.