Democrats find their candidate

By Steve Brawner

© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

If you’re an Arkansas Democrat, the glass-half-empty perspective is that your candidate for governor apparently is going to be Jared Henderson, a 39-year-old political newcomer you’ve probably never heard of. That’s also the glass-half-full perspective.

It’s a glass half empty because you’d prefer someone well-known, well-liked, with money, and with a history of winning statewide races in this new political environment.

But that person’s name is Mike Beebe, and he’s term-limited. And so it’s a glass half full because the party must develop fresh faces, and the 2018 governor’s race is as good a place to start as any.

The struggle to find a candidate

For the Democrats, just finding someone to run against Gov. Asa Hutchinson has been a challenge. He’s an incumbent Republican in a deeply reddening state, his poll numbers are pretty good, and he had banked more than $1.5 million at the third quarter’s end. With his moderate demeanor and pragmatic governing style, he’s the best Republican governor Democrats could hope for.

But Democrats must run somebody for governor, because any party that doesn’t win 3 percent in that race next year would have to collect signatures to get on the ballot in 2020 as a “new” party. After 150 years of running everything, that would be embarrassing. Henderson decided to enter the political arena, though he didn’t know which race, and approached the party. One thing led to another, so now there are three candidates for governor, the other being the Libertarian Mark West. No other Democrats have indicated an interest in running.

Jared Henderson’s priorities

So who is Jared Henderson? He’s 39, but he looks younger. He’s a 1997 graduate of Springdale High School whose last campaign was for Student Council president. (He won.) He earned degrees from the University of Arkansas in physics and computer science and then picked up a couple of master’s degrees at Harvard. He’s spent most of the past decade working for Teach for America, which plugs non-teachers from other walks of life into teaching positions. His wife, Dr. Melanie Prince, is a Little Rock plastic surgeon. He has a 13-month-old baby boy.

During an interview at the Democratic Party’s headquarters Monday, Henderson laid out his campaign priorities. First, he wants to support teachers and address a growing teacher shortage by raising the profession’s salary and prestige. Second, he wants to focus on rural economic development and small businesses. Third, he wants to reduce childhood poverty and teen pregnancy. And finally, he wants to reduce health care costs.

Those are the issues he wants to talk about. Then there are those hot button issues he’ll probably have to talk about at some point. Abortion should be “as rare as possible,” he said, but legal until 20-24 weeks and then afterwards legal in “the most extraordinary circumstances.” He mentions that he’s the son of an unwed teenage mother. Transgender bathrooms? He’s glad Hutchinson has kept the state out of that contentious debate. He says he’s pro-Second Amendment and that “every law-abiding citizen should be able to have (guns) for defense or hunting or just because.”

Two names didn’t come up much in our half-hour interview. One was “Hutchinson.” He didn’t spend much time talking about him, calling him a “good, decent man.” The other was “Trump.” Henderson didn’t even mention the president until he was asked, saying he doesn’t “intend to invoke him as a hot button issue.”

A long shot candidacy

This is a long shot candidacy, to be sure, and I told him so. Recent statewide Democratic candidates other than Beebe have hit a ceiling somewhere south of 40 percent.

He recognizes that it’s an uphill climb. However, he said, “Honestly, this is about what is necessary and what I believe in, less than what’s possible. If every political figure in history had waited until the perfect time, if they had waited until there was an easy, clear path, where the red carpet was laid out for them, we would have missed some of the greatest progress that we’ve seen in politics, whether as a state or as a country.”

He said then-Gov. Bill Clinton faced long odds when he ran against President Bush in 1992, and that a lot of crazy things are happening in politics right now. Besides, everyone benefits when there is a robust debate.

That’s a glass-half-full perspective, but a candidate had better have one.

Related: Why is Gov Hutchinson so comfortable?

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