A real debate threatened to break out near the end of the inaugural meeting of the Northeast Arkansas Political Animals Club Friday.
The featured speaker, former Congressman Asa Hutchinson, who is running for governor again, had made the requisite Republican castigation of "Obamacare" before opening the floor to questions. After two or three about the teacher insurance issue, one senior citizen stood up and said:
"I am extremely disappointed in the way Republicans have misrepresented the Affordable Health Care Act. Arkansans especially need it … after Bush made us a Third-World country."
A man sitting at a table with 1st District Congressman Rick Crawford disputed that, saying he was a small business owner and that "Obamacare" had been a bombshell for the nation. He said not a single Arkansan has ever been denied health care.
That wasn’t exactly the point. Anyone in dire need of medical help can get it at a hospital emergency room or clinic, regardless of the ability to pay. But not everyone can get health-care insurance coverage, which is very different and can be very critical to one’s overall health.
Hutchinson then gracefully shut off debate by declaring that "health care is a great concern for Arkansas." He’d already said the Legislature would not have passed the so-called private option to Affordable Health Care if he’d been governor during the past general session.
Besides, the neophyte club was operating under the "Rotary rule," which is that everyone will be leaving by 1:01 p.m.
Thus, the first NEA Political Animals Club meeting ended with a little controversy.
L.J. Bryant, a Jonesboro businessman who has run for state land commissioner and state representative, opened the meeting by explaining that he and Mark Young, president and chief executive officer of the Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce, had been discussing the formation of such a club for several years. It fits into the concept of how to think regionally, he said.
Indeed, all 100 seats available at the Chamber Building were sold. Candidates were allowed to introduce themselves, and they came from several NEA counties, including almost all the candidates in the upcoming special election in state Senate District 21.
It is fortuitous that the Political Animals Club should be organized just before the Oct. 8 primaries to that election, in which four Democrats and three Republicans are seeking their party’s nomination. Runoffs will be held Nov. 12, if necessary, and the general special election on Jan. 14.
That’s a terrible time to fill an important position, and District 21 covers much of Craighead County. The special election was made necessary when Sen. Paul Bookout resigned under duress because of campaign spending violations.
In an off-election year political forums are especially hard to find. One candidate told me he’d be at the Northeast Arkansas District Fair every night this week, and he certainly won’t be the only one. But that sort of event allows only one-on-one contact, which is inefficient for the candidates and does not give voters a chance to compare candidates.
District 21 has one television station and one daily newspaper, and both will surely give some attention to the race and issues that distinguish the candidates.
But the best chance for comparison may be the next meeting of the Political Animals Club on Oct. 4, for which all seven candidates have been invited. Each will be given time to introduce himself, and questions will be selected ahead of time for the candidates.
Organizers have pushed the start up to 11:30 to allow more time for the candidates, and two-thirds of the available seats have already been reserved. If the early popularity of these meetings continues, a larger venue may be needed.
Although early voting will have already started, that meeting may produce the biggest news story about the primaries. And that is, unfortunately, typical of most of our legislative races, even in election years.
By limiting the terms of our lawmakers, we’re encouraging more contested elections for the various positions, but we don’t have many opportunities to get to know the candidates.
So thank goodness for the organization of a Political Animals Club for the region. It’s a unique group that, unlike civic clubs, can focus on campaigns and campaigners.
The NEA club is modeled after similar groups in Little Rock and Northwest Arkansas. The Little Rock club was organized in 1983 by James L. "Skip" Rutherford, now dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.
Its genesis was the old Coachman’s Inn, a popular downtown gathering spot for political figures and other community leaders. During my first years on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists, we often held meetings there, and it was not uncommon to be in the Coachman’s restaurant and run into Bill Clinton, Orval Faubus or Winston Bryant.
Meetings of the Little Rock club, which now draws up to 200 people regularly, were originally off the record. But that was changed, and they now get heavy media coverage.
The beauty of the organization is that it’s bipartisan (Andrea Allen, who works for the Republican Crawford, is co-chairman of the NEA club), and it’s loosely structured with no board, dues or staff. Anyone can join just by getting on the mailing list at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.