When State Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, was first elected to the Arkansas House in 1994, he was one of a handful of Republicans in the legislative body that had been dominated by Democrats for generations. Despite his super-minority status, Hendren said he was treated with respect and when he had a bill he wanted to push, his Democratic colleagues often helped him.
The time of legislative bi-partisanship is long over, he said.
Hendren, who changed his party affiliation to independent, was in Jonesboro on Friday (Jan. 21) promoting his new organization, Common Ground Arkansas. He spoke at the NEA Political Animals meeting with former Republican Speaker of the Arkansas House Davy Carter.
Common Ground Arkansas is a non-partisan effort to support candidates for office who will work on policy making that will make life better for people of the state, Hendren said. The recent legislative session was dominated by Republican legislators who wanted to pass niche social legislation that impacted less than 0.1% of the population, he said.
There is no camaraderie in the State Legislature anymore and it’s been fomented by legislators bringing a “D.C. style politics to Little Rock,” he said.
“We’re going to make the 2023 session different from the 2021 session,” Hendren said. “You have to make a consequence for stupidity.”
Carter, who is also part of Common Ground Arkansas, said the recent developments in the state legislature are alarming. He still talks with several of his former colleagues in the House and Senate, and several are retiring from office due to the abhorrent policy making, he said.
Many of the legislative initiatives pushed during the session including, ones that banned transgender medical procedures for minors and others, created national headlines for Arkansas for all the wrong reasons, he said. Business leaders around the country and world are taking note of what’s happening in the Natural State for the wrong reasons, he added.
“All this stuff that is going on is bad for business,” Carter said.
Common Ground hopes to endorse about six candidates in each legislative body. Party affiliation won’t matter, Hendren said. The Republicans will easily retain control, but several extremist incumbents need to be defeated, he added.
One approach they’ll take besides finding good candidates to primary some of these incumbents will be to choke off the supply of money that flows into incumbents’ coffers, Hendren said.
Businesses often donate money to incumbents without realizing the real-world, negative impacts. Common Ground plans to educate these donors when they dole campaign cash, he said.
Another priority will be to reform the primary process in Arkansas, Carter said. A major problem is that a handful of voters in many districts decide races that in the end impact the lives and livelihoods of the entire state.
One option could be the implementation of a version of ranked choice voting, a system by which voters in primaries can rank their choices. Ranked choice voting has been implemented in other parts of the country with some mixed results. Carter said a reform of the primary voting process would help to eliminate extremist candidates.
Hendren, who is Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s nephew, acknowledged his group will face many uphill battles. In the end, he said it will be worth it.
“How do we make Arkansas better? I love Arkansas. I don’t think there is a better place to live,” he said.