STATE REP. TIPPI MCCULOUGH

State Rep. Tippi McCullough (D-Little Rock) talks about the future of the Democratic Party of Arkansas and the coming 93rd Arkansas General Assembly, which convenes Jan. 11.

Congrats on becoming House minority leader. But you’re entering the coming legislative session in an unenviable position. Republicans hold a supermajority and majorities on every committee. How do you approach the session considering those facts?

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We went from them having a supermajority to us losing three seats and gaining one back with Ashley Hudson [who won West Little Rock’s District 32]. I don’t know if you can add “superduper minority” to our status. It doesn’t make it any easier. I thought we had really good candidates this time and thought we would possibly pick up a few seats and really hoped we wouldn’t lose any. Losing someone like LeeAnn Burch [of Monticello, District 9] with her military record and being an attorney and being from rural Arkansas, that has really hurt and upset a lot of us. Not to say losing others wasn’t bad, too. Losing two, are we in any worse position than we were? It’s about the same. But it’s demoralizing. 

On committees it won’t be a lot different. This time we were able to pick up nine seats on Judiciary and Insurance and Commerce committees. That helps us in those committees if we’ve got some consensus with Republicans to work together and maybe do some things. Republicans filled Education, State Agencies and Public Health. That was expected. I’ve heard a lot of people say they thought the committee selection went about as good as it could’ve gone. 

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We’re gonna do what we always do. We’re going to try to run good bills. We’re gonna talk about our values and what we think is good policy for Arkansans. I think the session will be like the previous, recent session. Hopefully we can have some influence somewhere. It’s like everyone says, 80-90% of bills go through with bipartisan voting. We’ll stick on some issues like gun sense, something like stand your ground, and some of the abortion bills. Probably some of the tax bills we may not completely agree with. Maybe some that we do.

I know the hate crimes bill is something you’ve long advocated for. It was significant that the governor announced his support for it, but already we’ve seen a lot of skepticism from prominent Republicans. How does it get passed?

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I’m encouraged by the governor’s support and Sen. Jim Hendren’s, and there are a few other Republican cosponsors. I’m also encouraged by the State Chamber in support of it and being involved and some of the business support. That has seemed to make a difference in the past on some of these issues. It’s good for the economy in Arkansas to pass. Obviously, it’s also important for people who are discriminated against and might have some kind of heinous crime committed against them. 

We’re one of three states that don’t have a hate crimes statute. There will be some businesses that will want to go somewhere else if they see that. I have heard people say it’s dead on arrival. But “dead on arrival today” just means that — today. By the time the vote comes around, a lot can happen. There will be a lot of work that goes into that vote. Never say never.

Won’t Democrats largely be working to help more establishment, pragmatic Republicans keep the Cuckoo Caucus, as Max Brantley has dubbed them, at bay on important issues like COVID-19 and health care and others?

Last session there were times that we were able to have a little influence and a little power just because of factions splitting on the other side. [Democrats] don’t always all stick together on votes. But I think there’s a bigger divide on their side. When there are that many, it’s harder to keep it all together. If you’ve got us and two factions, it splits it up for us to have some influence and be able to work with the governor. That’s what we spend a lot of time doing, working on those relationships. We have so much in common, all of us. We have good conversations about families and business and all those things that are important to all of us. You just try to inch closer on some kind of compromise on all this stuff, so we’re doing what’s best for all Arkansans.

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As an activist before I came in, [I know you can] start to vilify people. But you get to know people. You start to see them as people. We have so much in common. From teaching and coaching all over the state, I can almost connect with anyone just through who we both know.

What’s your take on how the governor has handled the COVID-19 pandemic?

I think he’s in a really tough spot. At times, I’ve been really encouraged and proud. Then there have been times I’ve wanted him to push for more. He’s been in a struggle with members of his own party. I’m worried right now that we’ll let up too soon because the vaccine is starting to happen, but I think based on the UAMS projections, we’ve still got six months of this. But in talking with members of the caucus, everyone is weighing jobs, businesses, schools and health. All along the way, there’s always been a little more that we could do. I don’t take lightly the weight of what the governor has to work with, but I’m still going to fall on the side of saving people’s lives.