James Lee Witt, the former FEMA director who now chairs the board of a crisis management company he started, tells me he’s about “80 percent” decided to make a run for Congress from the 4th District.
The current representative, Tom Cotton, is running for U.S. Senate. Witt has been urged by former President Bill Clinton, gubernatorial nominee Mike Ross, Vice President Joe Biden and many others to make the race to reclaim an Arkansas congressional seat for a Democrat. “I’ve told them to stop calling,” he said.
Witt will tour South Arkansas in the next week with a co-worker and longtime political player, Hal Hunnicutt, to continue his sampling of the mood and fund-raising potential for him in Arkansas. “I want to meet people face to face. If it feels good and looks good then I’ll make my decision around the end of the month.”
Themes? He’s still working on that. He said Ruth Whitney likely would manage his campaign.
Witt, whose own company merged with another group at the first of the year, has been based in Dardanelle for five years as his wife of 51 years, Lea Ellen, coped with cancer. She died in September. But he still travels frequently. He mentioned visits with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Citibank and the head of New York Mets security in recent days. He said he was flying one day and reading accounts of current political disputes in the Washington Post and New York Times.
“It just absolutely breaks my heart to see what’s going on up there,” he said. “If I run, it’s not to build a new career. [He’s 69.] It would be just to help and make a difference. All the years at FEMA, I worked closely with both Democrats and Republicans. I treated everyone equally. I’ve supported a lot of Republican members of Congress because they’re my friends. We’ve got to do something to try to change things. I think I could help.”
Witt likely wouldn’t be greeted with such magnanimity from the Republican side, where Rep. Bruce Westerman and Tommy Moll and perhaps others hope to succeed Cotton. A Republican political operative has already filed FOI requests for all internal communications by Witt’s firm with government agencies for which it has done political work. This ranges from the Clinton National Airport in Little Rock to the city of North Little Rock. Hardball oppo research is not the style of politics Witt played as a county judge, state emergency services director, FEMA director or political consultant. His style is soft-spoken nice guy.
Witt’s a lot more likely to talk about his remarkable life story than knock an opponent. He grew up poor — his father a farm laborer, his mother a housekeeper. He bought a $13 bike on time to run an Arkansas Democrat paper route and worked summers baling hay in Texas to pay for education. He became a draftsman for nuclear submarine construction in Connecticut but moved home and eventually started a successful construction business, then served six terms as Yell County judge. The farm on which his father once labored is now one of three totaling 2,000 acres on which Witt raises cattle and restores a fleet of classic vintage automobiles. He also watches his grandson, a major college prospect, play defensive end for the Dardanelle Sand Lizards, and takes plenty of calls related to his ongoing consulting business. The firm, Witt O’Brien’s, does about $80 million in billings a year. He’s not ready to slow down. “I feel good. I’m in good shape.” It takes good condition to run in the sprawling district.
Sen. Bobby Pierce of Sheridan has also been mentioned as a potential Democratic candidate. He told Roby Brock at Talk Business today that he also was nearing a decision on the race.