Arkansas blacks can’t break state, Congress barrier

By | November 11, 2008

Arkansas remains the only state from the former Confederacy never to elect an African-American to Congress or any statewide office — and last week it soundly rejected the man set to become the nation’s first black president.

Barack Obama lost by 20 percentage points, even though fellow Democrats control all of Arkansas’ statewide offices, both chambers of the Legislature and three of its four congressional districts.

Many blacks say race is the reason, and consider the poor showing to be another frustrating chapter in Arkansas’ long and tortured civil-rights history.

“To vote for an African-American at a statewide level would show we’re willing to move forward. We have an obligation to continue to belie that piece of history that is indelibly in people’s brains,” said Joyce Elliott, a Democrat unopposed last week in a state Senate race in Little Rock.

Elliott, who is black, said she would someday like to run for statewide or congressional office but is not encouraged by the state’s history.

“It’s important for all of the state to say this is something we want to do. This is an opportunity gap we need to fill,” she said.

Obama’s losing Arkansas was not unexpected. He made no trips to a state that had gone Republican in every presidential election since 1980 except when its former governor Bill Clinton was running for the White House.

Since Obama did not campaign here the way he did in the Southern states he won — Florida, Virginia and North Carolina — it’s hard to predict how future black candidates might fare in Arkansas, said Jay Barth, a political scientist at Hendrix College in Conway.

“There really wasn’t a dialogue about his candidacy in the state,” Barth said. “In the absence of that conversation, it allowed certain stereotypes and assumptions about Obama to really lock in in the eyes of the Arkansas electorate.”

Exit polls conducted with Arkansas voters last week showed that 68 percent of white voters went for Republican John McCain, with 30 percent voting for Obama. In 2004, President Bush carried 63 percent of the white vote, compared to 36 percent for Democrat John Kerry. Among white women in 2004, 60 percent voted for Bush; this year 68 percent went for McCain.

Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana are the only states where President-elect Obama fared worse among white voters than Kerry did in his 2004 loss.

“It says to me that race is still a predominant issue in those states and that it was race that was the explanation” for Obama’s loss in those states, said David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.

One reason no blacks have been elected to Congress in Arkansas is demographics: Unlike many Southern states, it has no predominantly black congressional districts. In a state of less than 3 million people, about 16 percent of them black, it would be difficult to draw up such a district.

For statewide offices, meanwhile, it took until 2002 for Democrats to even nominate a black candidate. Ron Sheffield, a lawyer in his first political run, lost in lieutenant governor’s race that year to billionaire GOP incumbent Win Rockefeller.

Sheffield said he wanted to show other minority candidates what was possible.

“Why run for a legislative seat that is in a district that is 80 percent minority? OK, you know a minority is going to be elected in a district that’s predominantly minority, but should a political candidate only run in districts that are safe districts where they know they’re going to probably get elected?” Sheffield said. “I don’t understand that.”

In 2004 and 2006, Appeals Court Judge Wendell Griffen lost statewide bids in nonpartisan state Supreme Court races while simultaneously fighting a disciplinary panel over the rights of judges to speak out on political issues.

Arkansas Republicans have fared better than Democrats in nominating blacks to statewide office. Kenneth “Muskie” Harris won a GOP runoff for lieutenant governor against former Nazi and Ku Klux Klan sympathizer Ralph Forbes in 1990 but lost to Jim Guy Tucker in the general election. Retired educator Rose Bryant Jones ran for secretary of state in 1998 but lost to Democrat Sharon Priest. Chris Morris, part of then-Gov. Mike Huckabee’s adminstration, lost the treasurer’s race in 2006 to Democrat Martha Shoffner.

Republicans here say they have a chance to show off their diversity in upcoming elections. State Party Treasurer Joseph Wood, who is black, said he’s likely to run for party chairman when the state committee meets next month and said he believes the party will have a diverse field of candidates.

“Do I think we’ll see more? Absolutely,” Wood said.

Democrats also say they think the state’s 2010 elections will offer a chance for them to shine, with at least one black state senator eyeing a race for secretary of state.

“Arkansas over the years has become a more progressive state than it’s ever been. The issues of race politics are less prevalent than they were in our previous history,” said Sen. Hank Wilkins, D-Pine Bluff. “I think there’s a convergence of things that make it possible for that to happen in the future.”

Black leaders in the state say both parties need to do a better job of recruiting black candidates who can run for higher office and win. If not, the state could suffer economically as much as politically, they say.

“That’s why we’re having a migration out of Arkansas of talented young black professionals,” Griffen said. “They don’t see an opportunity for real long-term progress in public policy involvement if they stay here in this state.”

ANDREW DeMILLO, AP