Arkansas Democrats get small win in tough week

By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Arkansas Democrats had a terrible week and then a good couple of hours.

The week was terrible for them for a lot of obvious reasons. On Tuesday, Republicans easily won all five of the contested congressional races, only two of which featured a Democratic challenger. At the State Capitol, Republicans increased their majorities by two in the Senate and seven in the House – then by another in the House on Wednesday when third term Rep. Jeff Wardlaw of Hermitage switched parties from Democrat to Republican.

The election’s one bright spot was supposed to be the presidential race. So much for that.

Republicans now occupy 100 of the Legislature’s 135 seats – 74 in the 100-member House and 26 in the 35-member Senate. In 2008, Democrats controlled 102 of the 135 seats.

At the state and national levels, Arkansas Democrats are fast becoming less a minority than a remnant. After a century and a half of one-party Democratic rule, Arkansas looks poised to be dominated by Republicans for decades, if not longer.

Then last Thursday, Democrats won a satisfying little victory when House members selected their committee assignments. There are 10 committees in the House – five more important “A” committees and five “B” committees – and Democrats thought they might could gain a majority on one of the A committees if they played their cards right. They did.

The way it works is that the members divide up by the four congressional districts and meet at the same time in different locations, Republicans and Democrats together, and choose their committees one at a time based on seniority. Early in the process, Democrats saw an opportunity to gain a majority on the Revenue and Taxation Committee. Texting each other across the different meeting rooms, they began selecting that committee. Before Republicans could organize to stop them, they had gained an 11-9 majority.

The move meant that Democrats are virtually nonexistent in the other committees, where the partisan breakdown is 17-3 in Education; 16-4 in Judiciary; 16-4 in Public Health; and 16-4 in Public Transportation. But they now have a majority in the committee through which tax cuts travel, or are supposed to travel.

And that might be kind of important, considering one of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s stated goals is a $50 million tax cut. By controlling that committee, Democrats at least have a seat at the table in deciding who benefits most from that tax cut – lower-income working families, perhaps, instead of higher-income earners. Or perhaps they can use their majority as a bargaining chip for one of their other priorities, such as expanding access to pre-kindergarten classes.

Time will tell how much of an effect their gambit accomplishes. There’s only so much you can accomplish when you’re outnumbered 74-26. Speaker of the House Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, names committee chairs and can select a Republican to chair Revenue and Tax, just as he selected a Democrat, Rep. Joe Jett, D-Success, to chair it when Republicans had a majority. If Republicans want to play hardball, they can change the rules or just ram a tax cut through a different committee. Or they could just let the Democrats have this one. Some Republicans aren’t so sure the state needs much of a tax cut, anyway.

For the foreseeable future, this is the kind of thing Democrats will have to do if they want to remain relevant because it’s going to be tough for them to win at the state level outside of the Delta, Little Rock and Fayetteville. In many parts of the state, Democratic-leaning candidates will have to do what Republican-leaning candidates used to do, which is run for office as a member of the other party. Or they can run as Democrats and lose in hopes of building the party to fight another day – perhaps one a long way off.

Regardless, they’ll have to content themselves with the notion that there are more important things than numerical majorities. They’ll have to use their position to advance their favored legislation knowing many voters probably won’t give their party’s candidates a chance as long as they have a “D” by their names.

It’s not necessarily fair, but it’s how Republicans had to operate for 150 years, and it wasn’t fair then, either.

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