With his silver hair, sunglasses, and crisp black suit, Richard Carroll certainly looks the part of a state legislator. A resident of the Baring Cross neighborhood near Fort Roots in North Little Rock, Carroll was elected on the Green Party ticket to represent District 39 back in November, winning more than 80 percent of the vote. Currently, he’s the highest-ranking Green in the United States.
Though he cleans up well, his button-down work as a legislator is a far cry from what he really does for a living: a dirty, dangerous job as a boilermaker for the Union Pacific Railroad, Thanks to what he calls his very “civic minded” employer, Carroll has been allowed to work the night shift at the Union Pacific yards in North Little Rock part time so he can come to the legislature during the day. From 11 p.m. to around 3 in the morning, he helps rebuild locomotives that have been damaged in derailments and accidents. He catches a few catnaps before and after work, and sleeps a lot on weekends. “I get a couple hours sleep before I go in to the Capitol,” he said. “I may stay until 7 o’clock, go home, get a couple more hours sleep, then go to work.”
Since the replacement of steam locomotives with boilerless diesels, Carroll said, railroad boilermakers have become the “support craft” of the engine shop. “We uncover and take the component parts off the locomotive so the machinists can work on the engine or air compressor or radiator section. We expose it, they work on it.” When he’s at his night job, Carroll said, he’s typically in jeans, a T-shirt, a welding cap. A bandana keeps grit and grime from going down his neck. Prior to being elected, he already owned one weddings-and-funerals suit, but he recently bought another for the Ledge. “I’ll try to shuffle enough shirts between the suits,” Carroll said. “And Jim Lendall, the ex-Representative from the Green Party, he gave me some jackets, but he was a 48 and I’m a 42. Some of them I can maybe get altered.”
Carroll’s route to the statehouse was a bit out of the way. A former chairman with North Little Rock’s International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Local No. 66, he said he’d never even considered running for public office until what he usually refers to as the “situation” involving Dwayne Dobbins. The former District 39 Representative, Dobbins resigned from the House in 2005 as part of a plea bargain that reduced a felony sexual assault charge to a misdemeanor harassment charge after allegations that Dobbins improperly touched a 17-year-old girl. Dobbins’ wife Sharon Dobbins subsequently won a special election after her husband resigned. Though the Democratic Party expected her to run again in 2008, her husband filed for the race an hour and a half before the deadline. The Democrats refused to support Dobbins’ candidacy, and went looking for write-in candidates.
“I felt like I needed to step up,” Carroll said. “It’s the way he went about filing. If he had given the opportunity for others to know that he was the one filing, there would have been ample time for someone to step forward and run.” Once he decided to make a try for the seat, Carroll knew he had an uphill climb. His district is majority black, and though his wife is African-American, more than one person flatly told him that a white person could never get elected.
After he decided to run, he contacted both the Democratic Party and the Green Party. With the Democrats, he was told his only option was to run as a write-in candidate. With the Green Party, his name would actually be on the ballot. He went with the Greens, even though polling suggested he couldn’t win.
“The polls showed than a write-in candidate would end up getting more votes that a Green Party candidate on the ballot,” he said. “I proved that wrong.”
While technically a Green Party representative, Carroll admits he’s not “hardcore Green.” “I may not agree with their platform 100 percent, but as long as I don’t come out publicly in opposition to their platform, they don’t have a problem with me. I respect them for that. They gave me the opportunity to run on the ballot, and I will represent the Green Party.”
A staunch union man, Carroll said he would be a strong friend of labor as a legislator. The biggest items on his agenda, however, all have to do with improving life in urban communities like his own. There have been eight murders within a mile radius of his home in two years. Driving to work, he often sees the results of teen pregnancy, drugs and unemployment, and working people who don’t make enough to survive.
“I see all those things every day,” Carroll said. “People having to walk to the bus line and then walk back carrying their groceries because they don’t have the money for gasoline or a car, a lot of young, high school-age mothers pushing strollers around.”
Carroll said he’d like to see legislation to hold slumlords more accountable, and improved communication between local police departments and the State Police. “Individuals don’t just do crime in one neighborhood,” he said. “They’re doing crime in multiple areas, and a weapon that’s used in one city might be used in another city. They could end up discovering that things are tied together.”
To help convicted felons avoid the lure of criminal life, Carroll said he plans to lobby local union shops to assist in the creation of training programs, and to talk to local companies about hiring graduates of those programs — including those who are trying to go straight. “I feel like the unions are willing to train individuals if we’re able to find companies to employ them. If [convicts] come out and get a routine, they don’t have to go back to their old habits when trying to provide income … ”
For now, however, Carroll is just trying to find time between his night job, his day job, and his family life (he has two young sons at home, one of whom is disabled) to get a little sleep, all while keeping the checkbook balanced. While he’s excited about the new session, he said the long-haul rigors of life as a nighttime boilermaker and daytime legislator will decide whether his name is on the ballot again.
“That’s probably going to be the biggest factor that determines what I decide to do. It’s not as simple as showing up and passing some bills and making up some laws. It’s very in-depth decision making. The main thing is how I’m going to fare working 24 hours a week at night.”