Not that the questions are burning in the brains of Arkansas voters, even Yellow-Dog Democrats (or, more importantly, Blue Dogs):
• How much difference at the polls can a party chairman (either party) make?
• How much discipline can be imposed on the rank-and-file by the chairman? Or, for that matter, the titular head of the party, even should he be the incumbent governor?
• Will it matter at all that the new Democratic state chair is quite well known as to the political, social and cultural left of what most would agree as “mainstream” Arkansas thinking?
We’ll find out soon enough, as will Vince Insalaco. Appointed several days ago by Governor Beebe and subject to pro forma ratification by the Democratic State Committee at its September meeting, Insalaco, of North Little Rock, succeeds Will Bond of Jacksonville, the latter considering a potential campaign.
The party chairmanship “is tough by nature with Democrats. You know, organized chaos.” In other words, he tells himself, be of good cheer.
Insalaco, now 59, came of age politically in the early 1980s, winning the presidency of the Arkansas Young Democrats, forming alliances with like-minded activists still very much in the game: Mark Stodola, who would become the organization’s national president; Pat Hayes, to set a record for tenure as mayor of North Little Rock; Rodney Slater of Marianna, subsequently a Cabinet officer in the Clinton White House and now a power lawyer in Washington; Greg Reep of Warren, who would go the term-limited distance in the Arkansas House from southeast Arkansas; Ann Gilbert, a veteran Clinton campaigner and lobbyist.
Oh — Insalaco’s vice president those decades ago was a young man from Nevada County named Mike Ross.
“I’m older now,” Insalaco smiles, “certainly better prepared for the job after God knows how many campaigns.”
Older, certainly; wiser, probably; tested, undeniably, and by the cruelest of tests. Only now, for the first time since wife Sally’s death almost seven years ago, is he returning to the Yosemite National Park they shared during their 32 summers. The cancer dominated their final six years together, and gave Insalaco an unenviable view of the “dark side” of American medicine. His resources — he made a mint from the (well-timed) sale of the multi-state video rental business he founded — not only extended Sally’s life (horrendously expensive experimental treatments at UCLA Medical Center) but brought to it a quality of life quite out of reach to the less affluent.
“What happens to women is personal to me,” Insalaco says. He leans across the table to add: “Very personal.”
Ergo: “After the last legislative session” — and several new laws limiting abortion — “to not have a dialogue with Arkansas women is crazy.”
Yet: “I can’t believe that abortion will be the defining issue for Arkansas women” in the coming elections. “I think they’re concerned with jobs, incomes. The schools their kids attend.”
The same is true, Insalaco contends, of male voters. Controversies that cultural and religious conservatives have ridden to victory — God, guns, gays — can be overcome, he believes, with a lunchbucket agenda.
“I don’t think social issues matter to most people,” Insalaco says, gnawing at a kraut-laden frankfurter. “They never come up when I’m talking to ordinary folks, only when I’m with people on the hard left or hard right. It’s jobs, the economy. It’s how much am I making? Are my streets gonna be paved?”
So, after his Yosemite respite, and its gesture of reconciliation with fate, to work.
More or less in order:
1. A meeting with all former state Democratic chairs. “They’re a brain trust, with enormous experience.”
2. A statewide listening tour. Meet with local officials, tap them for ideas. Identify promising potential candidates. “You can’t represent Little Rock all the time, you can’t think Little Rock all the time. Little Rock is not Black Rock. I don’t want to sit in a Little Rock office and try to dictate who’s gonna run for what office.”
3. Research. “Serious research.” Demographics, voter registration, etc. “Some parts of Arkansas have changed, some haven’t.”
And if his own personal politics conflict with those the Democrats here and there recommend? “I don’t think what I think matters. The job is to represent all the people who consider themselves Democrats.”Or, presumably, those who don’t, necessarily, but who could be won over.
Barack Obama is still at the top of the party and if he won’t be at the top of next year’s ticket it won’t be because Republican strategists won’t attempt again the nationalization strategy that worked so well for them the past two elections: hogtying every Democratic nominee to a deeply unpopular president. Insalaco wonders if the burden of Barack has not lessened. It is another question to be answered a year from November.
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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and host of Arkansas Week on AETN.