4th District Q&A: Jeffress wants to fight Washington gridlock


State Sen. Gene Jeffress believes he is the candidate who can reach across party lines in Washington and help break the gridlock that’s frustrating residents he speaks to across Arkansas 4th Congressional District.

Jeffress, 63, D-Louann, won the 4th District Democratic nomination in a three-way primary. He is serving his 10th and final year as a term-limited state senator and previously served four years in the Arkansas House.

Jeffress faces Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, in the Nov. 6 general election for the seat occupied for 11 years by Democrat Mike Ross, who announced last summer he would not seek re-election.

Jeffress and his wife Cynthia have three grown children, all married, and five grandchildren. All of them live within 100 yards of his home in Louann.

He went to high school in Crossett and graduated in 1971 from University of Arkansas at Monticello with a bachelor’s degree in music education. He taught for 28 years and was a high-school choir director.

The 4th District covers 33 counties in southern Arkansas, including portions of Sebastian and Crawford. Louann is in rural Ouachita County, between Camden and Smackover.

Jeffress and Cotton were both asked the same five questions in telephone interviews with the Times Record, with no time limit placed on their responses. However, both candidates were made aware their responses would be edited for length.

Jeffress’ paraphrased answers to the following questions:

A Pine Bluff area businessman recently told a civic club that deepening the Arkansas River from 9 to 12 feet to allow barges to move more freight could generate jobs. While some studies suggest the work could take up to $100 million, others say it could be done for as little as $4 million to $10 million. What could you do to help fund the project?

Jeffress: Living on the river in Camden, we’ve faced some of the very same issues with the Ouachita River, with barges having problems bringing oil into Cross Oil near Smackover. Of course, this is a much larger project redoing the river bottom so we can get bigger and heavier traffic in there.

I’m for that 100 percent. That river is so important; if we don’t do it the Mississippi is the only river we’ll be able to use in our part of the world. River traffic needs to be able to come from Fort Smith to the opposite side of the state.

The Pine Bluff Arsenal successfully destroyed about 12 percent of the nation’s stockpiled chemical weapons. With the elimination of the stockpile, approximately 1,100 contract, civilian and government workers were scheduled to lose their jobs in the phased reduction in force. The arsenal still employs about 1,000 workers in operations that were not linked to chemical-weapons disposal; however, what can be done to bring more work to the facility?

Jeffress: As a congressman there will be levers to pull, places to see and people to talk to. Being from the Camden area I have a similar background with the Pine Bluff area, in that we have the Highland Industrial Park.

As a state legislator I was very successful helping bring jobs and keeping jobs in that area. It wasn’t chemical but it’s a lot of defense contractors.

We’ve been hit hard during the downturn in the economy and we need to be seeking new positions. I will do everything in my power to do that.

I’m about the 4th District, I don’t owe anyone in Washington or other special interests.

Affordable, fair and high-quality health care for U.S. residents is one of the country’s most divisive, hot-button issues now. If elected to Congress, how would you address this matter?

Jeffress: To be honest I think it’s already passed, the Affordable Health Care for America Act.

No one had health care in my family when I was growing up; my dad died at 68 and my mom at 58. We can do better than that. How much longer would I have enjoyed having my parents if we had health care?

So many families in Arkansas need health coverage. I don’t want to see it as a handout, but there are people who can’t work that do need that help.

While the Act isn’t perfect — it’s not even close — there is a lot of good, like covering pre-existing conditions and parents being able to keep their children on their insurance until they’re 26.

I do think the mandates are questionable. I don’t like being told what I have to do by the government. But this is better than nothing and that’s what we had before. We need to use common sense instead of just engaging in rhetoric.

There is no doubt the U.S. economy has been slow to recover from the Great Recession, and a major factor in the lagging recovery is continued high unemployment accompanied by slow job creation. If elected to Congress, what would you do to boost job creation for Arkansas and the nation?

Jeffress: Arkansas has been blessed during this recession compared to other states during the recession, looking at overall numbers, but of course that isn’t a comfort to people who have lost jobs.

We need to increase efforts to harvest natural resources in Arkansas, such as natural gas, pine timber and oil and lignite (brown coal) in southern Arkansas, which would help create jobs.

These are real jobs we’re talking about.

What do you consider to be the main issue facing the federal government, and if elected, how would you address it?

Jeffress: When I go anywhere in the 4th District, I hear the same complaint, people are tired of Congress (without mention of party) that does nothing but fight, and accomplishes nothing.

I can work across party lines, I did it in the state Legislature, and I have friends on both sides of the aisle. That’s how it has to be in Washington.

Another reason I can do that is because I’m not beholden to any special interest or even the Democratic Party. I owe the Democratic National Committee nothing; I work for the 4th District.

I don’t care who sponsors a bill, Democrat or Republican, if it benefits the 4th District, I’m voting for it.