Brian Chilson
PHONE BANKING: Michael John Gray, the Democratic Party chair, has been working the phones for a former legislator who endorsed a Republican for governor.

Some Democrats in North Little Rock are agitated by Democratic Party Chair Michael John Gray’s involvement in the race for mayor in support of Tracy Steele.

The Augusta farmer has made robocalls for Steele. Democratic JP-elect Kristina Gulley, a supporter of Terry Hartwick in the mayor’s race, said, “This is wrong on so many levels.”

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Gulley said Gray identifies himself in the calls as the Democratic Party chair and he objects to material being circulated about Steele. Hartwick, who received the call at his home last night, said, “I thought I misheard him” when he said he was the Democratic chair calling for Steele. He said he hung up several seconds into the call.

The Steele campaign paid for the call. UPDATE: Here it is.

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Gray’s defense of Steele was a reference to a flyer from an unregistered citizens committee that notes, accurately, that Steele endorsed Republican Asa Hutchinson in his 2014 race for governor and was rewarded by Hutchinson a month after he took office with a $114,000-a-year job as director of the Arkansas Health Services Permit Agency. He is a former Democratic legislator, a job in which he double-dipped as director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission during a time of near-constant turmoil. He later headed a private foundation that spent half the money it took in paying Steele, who had solicited corporate lobbyists for contributions while he was a legislator. In recent years, Steele has stirred controversy on the North Little Rock School Board, where he served for a time as president.

Gray didn’t immediately return my call, but this afternoon I heard back and his response can be found below. In short, he said he was attempting to clarify the party’s non-involvement in the flyer.

I’d been told that Democrats who complained about Gray’s endorsement were told by Gray that he was friends with Steele when both served in the legislature. Fine. Say that. But invoke the Democratic Party name in support of a turncoat?

Gulley has complained before about Democrats backing Steele, particularly Debra Mitchell, who’s the top voter supervisor in the county clerk’s office and active in the Democratic Black Caucus.

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This is a four-way race, including Council member Debi Ross and Alice Kunce.

Steele lost a runoff for mayor in 2012 against Joe Smith after leading the ticket in the primary. Smith is retiring this year.

The value of robocalls to North Little Rock landlines by a little-known Augusta farmer who lost his own race for re-election in 2018  strikes me as limited. I wonder if it’s also a backhanded slap at Vince Insalaco, a former Arkansas Democratic Party chair, who’s managing former Mayor Hartwick’s election bid.

UPDATE: I finally got Gray, who’d been traveling today. He said he hadn’t seen the message I left.

He said he’d received complaints from people who’d received the flyer because they thought it originated from the Democratic Party and asking why it was being sent to African-American voters.

“Tracy Steele is a friend and he has been supportive of me as chair and it was disingenuous to send a flyer that could be perceived as coming from Democrats to say he wasn’t a Democrat and I was happy to dispel the notion.”

He indicated the call was meant more as clarification than as endorsement, but he reiterated that Steele had been helpful to the party. He said he knew there’d be some who didn’t like the call and he’d heard from some, but “I stand by it.”

Gray said his recording introduced himself as chair of the Democratic Party and said it was exciting the city had a contested race to move the city forward. But he said he was “not excited” to see the party’s name brought up against one of the candidates. He said Steele was a friend and supporter when he was a legislator and as chair.

How had he helped the party while working for Hutchinson? “As a friend,” Gray said.”If we needed something we could call and he’s been involved.”

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I sent Steele questions but, as is his custom, he has not responded.