Arkansas has never elected an African-American statewide official, and when it finally does, he or she likely will be a Republican.
And he or she probably will be someone like Leon Jones.
The state has taken such a sharp turn red-ward in recent years that to be elected to a statewide office, a candidate almost must run as a Republican – much as the Democrats were the default party for a century and a half. That’s why the first African-American official probably will come from that party.
Jones, 47, Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s appointee as executive director of the Fair Housing Commission, is gauging support before making a final decision on running for attorney general in 2022. The current attorney general, Leslie Rutledge, is term-limited. Jones previously served as Hutchinson’s Labor Department director.
If he runs, he’d be Arkansas’ first elected African-American statewide official and also the only African-American Republican currently elected to any position at the state level — unless one is elected in 2020 or alongside him in 2022. The state’s seven constitutional officers and six members of Congress are white Republicans. As of Oct. 8, the 135-member Arkansas Legislature was composed of 102 white Republicans and 33 Democrats, 15 of whom are African-Americans including the recently elected Denise Ennett of Little Rock.
Sadly, more than a century and a half after the Civil War, much of our politics still is based on race. Areas with high percentages of white people — which is most of Arkansas — elect white candidates, and Republican candidates almost always are white. Meanwhile, African-Americans vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Those 15 African-American legislators represent areas with high minority populations. And this is not just the reality in Arkansas. In the 535-member United States Congress, there are only two black Republicans, and one of those is retiring. In 2016, only 8% of African-Americans nationwide voted for President Trump.
The preceding paragraph is not merely an accident of history. In the wake of the Civil Rights movement, the Republican Party adopted a “Southern strategy” to appeal to disaffected white people. Over time, those appeals helped turn what once was the solidly Democratic South into the nation’s most Republican region.
However, many Republicans want their party to be more diverse. And Democrats’ own history with regard to race is not exactly covered in glory. Race is the reason the South was solidly Democratic in the first place. Still, the Party of Lincoln has lost the moral high ground on this issue.
Jones told me he’s a Republican because of the party’s stance on economic issues, lower taxes, and the military. He credited his parents for raising him in a household that encouraged free-flowing discussions about political and social concerns. His dad was an insurance agent and his mother was an educator, they were both ministers and somewhat conservative, and they fostered a diverse collection of political views among their children.
“As a Republican, I know that I want to know how to fish,” he told me. “I want to know how to put the hook on my line and put the bait on my hook and throw it in the water and catch some fish, and I could do that every day for myself. I don’t want anybody coming to say, ‘Here’s a fish today,’ and then I’m waiting around tomorrow for them to give me another fish.”
He’ll get standing ovations saying stuff like that to Republican audiences.
Jones told me he won’t decide about running for attorney general until 2021. There is, he pointed out, another election between now and then. In the meantime, he’s reaching out to Republicans across the state. Being the first African-American statewide official is “a scary and daunting proposition,” he said.
But he may not be doing it alone. Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb told me Washington County Judge Joseph Wood and Sebastian County Clerk Sharon Brooks “have both expressed interest in running for higher office.” So 2022 could be a historic year in Arkansas politics.
Jones said he doesn’t see himself as a trailblazer. Instead, he merely would stand atop other people’s shoulders.
“I’m not running just as a black candidate,” he said. “If I were to run, I’d be running as a Republican who’s running for AG who’s a qualified individual who is also black.”
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.