An estimated 100 members of the Democratic Party of Arkansas State Committee met Saturday morning at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff to hear speeches from their party’s candidates for office in the 2014 elections.
“It’s important for the party to understand and recognize Jefferson County for the integral part it can play in a Democratic victory in November,” said State Rep. Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV of Pine Bluff.
In her opening remarks, State Sen. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock thanked UAPB for hosting the event, calling the school the “cradle of higher education for African-Americans.”
Former Fourth District U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, now a candidate for governor, also acknowledged UAPB, mentioning the orange traffic control barrels that line University Drive while the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department works to widen the roadway.
“When I was in Congress, I was proud to support the funding of this project to give the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff a proper entrance,” Ross said. “It’s going to be a five-lane highway.”
Ted Davis, the chairman of the Democratic Central Committee for Jefferson County, said the meeting in Pine Bluff by the state committee gave local members “an opportunity to pull the troops together and an opportunity to see the energy being asserted by the state party.
“It’s up to us now to do our jobs in November,” Davis said.
Before candidates for office were introduced, party chairman Vince Insalaco asked the committee to approve a resolution calling on election commission boards across the state to expand the number of early voting locations this year.
Specifically, he mentioned Desha County, which has only one location.
“It’s the right of the people to vote, “he said. “That’s what democracy is all about.”
The resolution was adopted by voice vote. While Insalaco did not mention Jefferson County, it has had only one early voting location, the Jefferson County Courthouse, in the past few elections.
Despite problems with the sound system, which went out shortly after the meeting began and was not repaired, party members from across the state gave standing ovations as their candidates for office appealed for their support, and for money.
In his address, Ross talked about television advertisements that he said are being paid for by money from outside the state.
“They’ve spent $1.1 million in the last 30 days and it’s eight months before the election,” Ross said.
Calling the advertisements “lies,” Ross said: “If they lie to you in television while they’re running for governor, can you trust them if they become governor?”
On the subject of prison reform, Ross said “we need a lot more African-Americans going to college or to job training instead of going to prison.”
He said that there are about 3,000 prisoners backed up in county jails waiting for a prison bed and acknowledged that building another prison will be necessary.
“We’ve got to do a better job of teaching inmates job skills while they’re in prison,” Ross said. “We need to reserve prisons for violent offenders. Drug users need drug treatment.”
He also had some strong words for the party faithful, describing this year’s elections as “the last stand,” and “the most important election since 1966.”
“We haven’t fared well for the last few years but we need to educate people on what it means to be an Arkansas Democrat,” Ross said.
District 4 Congressional candidate James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told the group “We’ve got a chance to turn this state from a red state into a blue state.
“We’ve got to knock on every door and leave no stone unturned,” Witt said.
Susan Inman, the party candidate for secretary of state, took a shot at her opponent, Republican incumbent Mark Martin.
“The guy who is sitting in that office now is not a race car driver but he has sure taken the people of Arkansas for a ride,” Inman said.
U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, who is being challenged for his seat by Republican 4th District Rep. Tom Cotton in November, also mentioned the out-of-state money being spent in advertising by supporters of his opponent.
“They’ve spent $5 million in Arkansas already but the great news is that the poll numbers haven’t changed,” Pryor said. “We’re going to win this race.”
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who is term-limited and cannot seek re-election, voiced support for the party’s candidate for the office, state legislator Nate Steel.
“I love this job,” McDaniel said. “Every single day my office gets presented with terrible ideas that come with great sales pitches. Nate Steel is someone that can separate the wheat from the chaff.”