Arkansas Democratic Party chair steps down, opens the door potential Black or woman party leader

Arkansas Democratic Party chair steps down, opens the door potential Black or woman party leader

BCN Executive Editor Wesley Brown – Aug. 11, 2021 — Arkansas Democratic Party (DPA) Chairman Michael Gray has announced his intentions to resign at the end of August, opening the possibility for a Black candidate or woman to lead the party for the first time.

Gray, a Woodruff County farmer, said he is accepting “a new professional opportunity” and intends to resign as party chairman, effective Sept. 1. Gray made the announcement to Democratic Party leaders during an Executive Committee meeting on Monday night, followed by an informal meeting of the State Committee. 

“Our state has been through immense changes since I began serving in public life and the challenges seem to be more important than ever,” Gray said in a statement on the Democratic Party of Arkansas website. “As chairman I’ve met people all across this state, with diverse backgrounds and upbringings, and found that when you turn down the noise from the cable television rhetoric most of us want the same thing. We want a good life for our families, and we don’t want to be ignored by the people who claim to be our leaders.”

Gray will be leaving the Democratic Party to join the newly formed Liberty & Justice for Arkansas as executive director, a progressive political action committee (PAC) that was initially formed this summer as an opposition campaign to defeat gubernatorial candidate Sarah Huckabee-Sanders. But Gray, in a statement, said the new super PAC is also committed to defeating other extremist candidates on the ballot in 2022 and beyond.

“I have seen firsthand the failure to address the needs of Arkansans in every zip code across this state when extreme rhetoric and races to be relevant are all candidates and officeholders bring to the table,” Gray said. “I’m excited about the opportunity to work in a non-partisan manner to help voters in Arkansas fight against those who seek to win by dividing us. Arkansas deserves better than charlatans and extremists.”

Gray’s entry into state politics first occurred when he was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2015 and 2017. During his tenure at the State Capitol, he also served as House Minority leader when Democrats held 35 of 100 seats in the lower chamber. In March 2017, Gray was elected DPA chair but later lost his seat as state representative in a November 2018 re-election bid for House District 47.

Black renaissance

Under Gray’s leader, the Democratic Party has deteriorated to near obscurity as the Republican Party dominates all levers of state government. Currently, Gov. Asa Hutchinson is serving his third term as the state’s chief executive officer and the GOP controls all constitutional offices. On the legislative front, the Republican Party also holds a supermajority in the House and Senate at the Arkansas State Capitol.

Outgoing Arkansas Democratic Party Chair Michael Gray

Heather Yates, associate professor of politic science at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, said the opportunity to name a Black party leader or woman to chair the DPA would not only be historic, but “engenders a sense of a renaissance” for the minority party.

“Whoever accepts the position will no doubt encounter several challenges involving the traditional party building activities, candidate recruitment, and fundraising. Such a historical possibility, though, presents an opportunity to modernize the DPA while also reinvigorating the traditional forms of retail politics that are so important here on the ground,” said Yates.  “Other tasks will require a multi-faceted strategy for developing a diverse constellation of donors from the bottom-up and top-down, cultivating support from local and national sources.”

Yates added that additional challenges will require the new leadership to marshal the party through the pandemic, while “ensuring candidates and voters engage in the electoral process safely—while tracking the progress of the various efforts to make changes to Arkansas voting and election law.”

Heading into the 2022 general election, however, the DPA may lose further ground on the Arkansas ballot as the GOP-led state Board of Apportionment is now holding redistricting hearings across the state. Under state law, the Board of Apportionment, consisting of the Governor, Secretary of State and Attorney General, must redraw all 100 House and 35 Senate districts later this year so that each area meets various legal criteria, including the same size in population.

Federal law requires that all 50 states must undergo “redistricting” every 10 years after the completion of the decennial census. Last month, Acting Census Bureau Director Ron Jarmin said his agency has several teams working hard on the release of the redistricting data from the 2020 Census, which was delayed for months due to the ongoing pandemic.

The Census Bureau’s redistricting data includes the first sub-state population counts and demographic characteristics from the census, information that states typically use for redrawing electoral district boundaries based on where their populations have increased or decreased. To learn more, click here.

Meanwhile, as Gray prepares for his unceremonious exit, party leaders are being tight-lipped about candidates to lead the party. However, one state lawmaker who asked to remain anonymous told that a Black woman that has “Stacey Abrams bona-fides” should be the next party leader. Stacey Abrams is the former candidate for Georgia governor and national voting rights activist who is a frequent target of the Republican Party for her “get-out-the-vote” efforts in Black, rural and underserved communities that led to the Democratic Party taking back the White House in the November 2020 election.

Black candidates on the Arkansas wish-list include the party’s First Vice Chair Nicole Hart of North Little Rock; Karyn Coleman, the current DPA chief of staff; and Sen. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock, who is term limited as a state senator. Others names that have been mentioned include current House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough and state Sen. Clarke Tucker, both of Little Rock. For now, however, Hart will serve as interim chair until the party decides when it will set an election. The next DPA State Committee meeting is in October.

Gray area: DPA faces uphill claim

Still, the next party chair will have difficulty bringing the DPA back to relevance, especially with ongoing fundraising and budget woes and an Arkansas electorate that overwhelmingly supported GOP and Pro-Trump candidates. In the 2020 presidential election won by Democrat Joe Biden, Arkansas voters supported former President Donald Trump with 67% or two-thirds of the state vote.

On the other hand, one thing that the DPA does have going for it in the 2022 election cycle is a harvest of Black, women and millennial political candidates. In June, former Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub Executive Director Chris Jones announced his bid to be Arkansas’ first Black Democratic governor.

Jones, whose campaign for governor has garnered national attention with a viral video highlighting his background as a nuclear engineer and minister with strong family and generation ties to Arkansas, got off to a hot start by raising more than $575,000 in only two weeks, according to quarterly campaign financial filings.

Also, the Democratic gubernatorial ticket includes Little Rock businesswoman Supha Xayprasith-Mays, the wife of Richard L. Mays Sr., a local civil rights attorney who was one of Arkansas first Black legislators and a former appointee to the Arkansas Supreme Court Justice. Anthony Bland, who ran for Lt. Governor in 2018, has also announced plans to run for governor on the Democratic ticket.

In other key races, Natalie James is seeking to be the party’s nominee to replace U.S. Sen. John Boozman, Arkansas’ longest-serving congressional lawmaker. James, a local real estate agent, has been active into the local NAACP chapter. All these candidates, however, face a long, uphill battle to win any statewide office or congressional seat during the next election cycle if measured by campaign financing.

In the governor’s race, for example, Sanders-Huckabee has broken all previous fundraising records with a whopping $9.1 million campaign haul, most from out-of-state donors, according to quarterly campaign finance reports filed with the Secretary of State’s Office through June 30.

And although Jones’ fundraising results are impressive, he still faces an uphill cash battle against any GOP candidate if he wins the Democratic Party. And besides Jones, none of the other Democratic Party candidates have raised more than $7,500 outside their own pockets, campaign filings show.


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