Denise Garner

Freshman Democratic state Rep. Denise Garner of Fayetteville gained national attention in her successful race against former Republican Rep. Charlie Collins, the sponsor of the bill that put guns on college campuses. Garner, a retired oncology nurse practitioner, mom, grandmother, and nonprofit founder, who is known for her use of her ever-present cell phone camera (I admit that I’ve hid from her once or twice when I wasn’t looking my best) and her ability to be everywhere at once, sat down with me recently to talk about the biggest problem facing Arkansas, the expectations of the women who worked to get her elected, and what she is listening to as she prepares to represent District 84.

Garner believes the biggest problem facing Arkansas is financial inequality, just as it is across the nation, and that inequality in both education and health care are a direct result.

“I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Dallas. Our neighborhood had teachers and CEOs of big companies and there wasn’t that much difference in their homes and where they went to school. There just weren’t these huge gaps” in income. “That is what is just so frustrating to me right now.”

The keys to fixing such inequality are retooling the economy and focusing on education, Garner says. She believes raising the minimum wage to a living wage is the first step. She calls trickle-down economics a failure and believes we need to shift to a consumer-based economy rather than a producer-based economy. This, plus expanding pre-K, raising teacher salaries and providing more wrap-around services, such as social workers and access to healthcare in our schools, could relieve some of the burdens on our educators, who often spend their own money on supplies.

Advertisement

“The way we pull people out of poverty and break the cycle is through education. If a child has had pre-K experience, that is huge. The statistics for Head Start and all of those programs are unbelievable. We have to make sure the public schools have the resources they need so the teachers can teach. And a $180 million tax cut is not going to do that.” Governor Hutchinson is seeking such a cut.

Her win of such a high-profile election will no doubt come with pressure. Garner acknowledges she will disappoint some people and made a point to talk openly about it during her campaign. Her goal is to listen and research the issues well, something for which her predecessor was not known. She believes she should face the same consequences if she fails to listen and connect with the voters in her district.

“If I make the best decision I can and make sure that they understand why I voted that way, then that is the best I can do. I hope that is enough. If it is not, you know, I deserve to be ousted and let someone else try.”

Asked if she has a playlist or favorite song to inspire her, Garner says she routinely listens to BBC, NPR and podcasts from Ezra Klein in lieu of music, but when she does feel down, she reaches back to her time with the Arkansas Travelers on the 2016 presidential campaign trail and hums some of the music frequently played at the Clinton rallies, including songs by Katy Perry and the campaign’s unofficial anthem, “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten.