Witt enters 4th District race


LITTLE ROCK — Former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt of Dardanelle announced Tuesday he will seek the Democratic nomination for Arkansas’ 4th District congressional seat.

“I’ve spent my adult life bringing people together at the toughest times of their lives in dealing with disasters. Nowhere needs disaster relief more than Washington. No place needs to be brought together more than Congress,” Witt, 69, said in a conference call with reporters.

“I don’t claim to know everything, but I do know that name-calling and partisan bickering aren’t going to solve any problems. People of good will who love their country can solve problems with common sense and hard work. That’s how I intend to run my campaign, and that’s how I intend to serve if elected,” he said.

Witt said he has traveled across the district and heard from residents that two of their top concerns are the economy and job training, issues that he said will be at the forefront of his campaign.

He said he would not have voted for the federal Affordable Care Act in the form in which it passed if he had been in Congress then, but he declined to say what he objected to in the law. He said that if elected he will work to make the law better.

State Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb said in a statement Tuesday, “The last thing hard-working Arkansas families need in Washington is just another self-serving politician like James Lee Witt. Anyone who could stomach turning a tragedy like Hurricane Katrina into an opportunity to exploit victims for a profit does not deserve to represent this great state.”

Webb was referring to hurricane recovery services that a for-profit public safety and management firm Witt founded has provided to the state of Louisiana.

Witt responded Tuesday: “All our rates in Louisiana or anywhere we work are approved by (the U.S. General Services Administration), all approved by FEMA, all competitively bid, and all participated in an audit to make sure everything is done appropriately.”

The 4th District seat is open because U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, is challenging U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., in Pryor’s bid for a third Senate term. Janis Percefull, a teacher from Hot Springs, is also seeking the Democratic nomination for the 4th District seat.

State House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman and businessman Tommy Moll, both of Hot Springs, are seeking the Republican nomination in the 4th District.

Born in Paris, Witt was raised in Dardanelle and founded a construction business in 1968. Ten years later he was elected Yell County judge, a position to which he was re-elected six times before being picked by then-Gov. Bill Clinton to head the state Office of Emergency Services.

Shortly after Clinton became president, he appointed Witt to run FEMA. In 1996, Clinton made FEMA director a cabinet position, a first for the office.

Witt was widely credited with improving FEMA’s previously poor reputation during his eight years as director. Since leaving that office he has served as an adviser to the state of Louisiana in the aftermaths of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and has worked with communities recovering from the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

From 2003 to 2006 Witt served as CEO of the International Code Council, which develops international building and fire safety codes. He founded public safety and management firm Witt Associates, now known as Witt O’Brien’s, and currently is chairman of its board.

His wife of 51 years, Lea Ellen, died in September after a five-year battle with cancer.