NOTE: THERE IS A CORRECTION AT THE END OF THIS ARTICLE.
It is the worst of times, for people who see such things as women’s autonomy, public education, fair taxation, clean air and water, scientific research and policies not guided by antipathy for the “other” — the brown, the black, the gay, the Muslim — as our moral touchstones, the definition of what it means to be an American.
And so, paradoxically, it is the best of times, for liberal-minded thinkers all over the country, including in blood-red Arkansas, to shake off complacency. The year 2017 has been especially motivating for progressive women, who have moved from the Pantsuit Nation to pussy hats to working to assume the mantle of political power.
Women have led the charge against regressive politics, heading up grass-roots lobbying groups such as Indivisible; starting new progressive organizations at city, county and statewide levels; forming political action committees; holding candidacy
If we have anything to thank President Trump for, it is that.
‘I moved on her like a bitch. … You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful. I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Whatever you want. Grab them by the pussy.’
— Donald Trump, 2005
The 2016 campaign for president of the United States turned over a nasty rock in America, setting free a writhing mass of meanness. People cheered when Mexicans were called murderers and rapists, when American prisoners of war were called losers, when African Americans were told they had “nothing to lose,” their lives so dreadful. It was OK to mock people with disabilities, to equate all Muslims with terrorists.
With the election of Trump and the Republican Party’s throwing its dignity in the trash, the year 2017 saw bad ideas put into bad policy. Women? Screw you if you want birth control. Transgender people: Get lost.
On Jan. 21, 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration, the growing rumble of disbelief and stunned dismay at the election of a lying, crude, narcissistic and intemperate — at best — man to the White House exploded into the dramatic and historic Woman’s March on Washington, a protest the size the nation had never seen, 5 million strong and joined simultaneously by marches all over the planet. In Little Rock, an estimated 7,000 men, women and children turned out on that crisp, brilliantly sunny day to march down Capitol Avenue, the protest here also a record-setting demonstration, provoked by the insult of Trump’s election to women, minorities, the poor, the marginalized, the environment, to civil rights.
Women have not stopped marching. The inspiration to fight did not fizzle. On Saturday, women — and their families — will march again to the Capitol, this year under the name “March on the Polls” and
Maybe 7,000 won’t turn out again. But, “I’ve never seen energy like this before,” Planned Parenthood Great Plains organizer Christina Mullinax told the Times.
Mullinax has seen passions rise and fall: In 2011, when women gathered at the legislature to fight bills to end women’s right to abortion, and in 2013, when 500 people — then considered a big crowd — turned out in the cold and the wet for the Stop the War on Women rally at the Capitol.
“Quite honestly, when the Women’s March happened, I was
At the state level, Planned Parenthood has been the subject of attack by Governor Hutchinson, who terminated the state’s Medicaid reimbursement contract with the health provider in 2015 after an anti-choice group used doctored videotapes to suggest Planned Parenthood was misusing fetal tissue and again in 2017 after the conservative 8th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a federal judge’s injunction against the state’s withholding of funds. Planned Parenthood clinics in Arkansas are providing services — including contraceptives, breast cancer screenings, cervical cancer screenings and STD treatments — to Medicaid-eligible for free for now, thanks to the post-Trump explosion of private support by people passionate about Planned Parenthood’s health care mission and disgusted by the cynical, misogynistic politicians who would
People have been so turned off by reactionary policies and turned on to do something about them that new coalitions have been built, even among those with diverse causes, Mullinax said. For example, when Mullinax spoke at a rally to protect the Dreamers — undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children — from deportation, she stood beside Catholic Bishop Anthony
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people …”
— Donald Trump on the campaign trail, 2016
“These Dreamers … are the worst of the illegals.”
— Ann Coulter in an interview with Fox Business News host Lou Dobbs last week, castigating Trump for suggesting he might let the Dreamers stay.
As the Times goes to press, 15 women who have never sought political office have announced bids. Two more have run before and are trying again: Melissa Fults, who this year is seeking the state Senate District 33 seat, and Susan Inman, the retired former Pulaski County Election Commissioner, who is running for Secretary of State (she calls herself the “matriarch” of women candidates.) Most, however, are political newcomers, including
Combs, 43, who like many newly politically active women is a schoolteacher, was stirred by her students. During the 2016 presidential campaign, some of her kids at Stephens Elementary School asked her if they would be deported if Trump were elected. One even asked if he would be murdered. “It was just kids talking,” Combs said, but she could see that the political climate was enveloping their lives and had them worried. “The internal me was conflicted dealing with not being able to honestly console these
When she learned of the plans for the Washington, D.C., Women’s March after the inauguration, Combs decided women who couldn’t travel needed a march in Little Rock. “I created my first Facebook event ever,” she said, to organize the event, and was soon joined by other women to help coordinate.
Meanwhile, Pantsuit Nation Arkansas — supporters of Hillary Clinton who functioned to support the presidential candidate before the election and to fight for what she represented after she lost — drew hundreds of women to an organizational meeting Nov. 26 at the Arkansas Education Association headquarters. That meeting was followed by City Director Kathy Webb’s “Little Rock 101” weekend meetings at Trio’s Restaurant about how to get involved in city politics. The so-called Indivisible movement was born, thanks to the Indivisible Guide to grassroots action written by former congressional and White House staffers (including Arkansas native and Arkansas Times columnist Billy Fleming).
On Jan. 21 in Little Rock, a stunning turnout of pink-hatted humanity, enough to pack several long blocks, marched to the Capitol, shouting
It was just the first of several mass protests. Another enormous crowd, one dwarfing the 2013 rally, turned out the following Saturday for the 7th annual Reproductive Rights Rally, where state Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) reminded the assembled men, women and children that her colleagues — “not one of them a doctor” — had voted to criminalize women’s health care, passing an anti-abortion law that made no exception for rape or incest. The following day, a chilly Sunday, another thousand people turned out at the Capitol, responding to a call issued only the evening before to protest Trump’s ill-conceived and unvetted executive order to immediately block travelers from majority Muslim countries, creating chaos at international airports in the U.S. and around the world and prompting instant legal challenges.
At that protest, Rita Sklar, the director of the ACLU of Arkansas, proclaimed, “I am the granddaughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, and today, until the end of this trouble, I am Muslim with all of you.” It was an astonishing, moving moment.
It was the third rally in eight days, and a sign held by one
“Women were the first to recognize that Trump is a five-alarm fire for our democracy,” Sklar said last week. “Over the past year, we’ve seen a whole new generation of women use the power of grassroots activism to push back against his extreme policies.” It’s a “groundswell,” she said, that is throwing a wrench in Trump’s agenda and has “the potential to change the political landscape for years to come.”
“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
— Donald Trump, November 2012
“In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against. Bundle up!”
— Donald Trump, December 2017
Rallies continued to draw good crowds. The Arkansas March for Science in April drew a crowd that stretched from the steps of the Capitol to Woodlane Street in front. Speakers at the event, organized by state Sierra Club Executive Director Glen Hooks and Arkansas State University philosophy professor
That Trumpism has the scientific community running scared was illustrated dramatically with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s own decision last month to avoid from its reports the words “diversity,” “entitlement,” “evidence-based,” “fetus,” “science-based,” “transgender” and “vulnerable.”
The rallies continued: Rallies in Fort Smith and Rogers on National Immigrant Day. Black Lives Matter protests. Vigils for the victims of gun violence in Las Vegas. Protests against service cuts in the tax bill.
And if anyone thought the president’s disdain for immigrants wasn’t prompted by his Aryan revulsion toward the black and brown, last week’s shocking comments in the Oval Office, when he described El Salvador, Haiti and African countries as “shitholes” and said he longed for more immigrants from places like Norway instead, should clear that right up.
Thanks to Trump’s daily tweets, there has been plenty of fuel to keep women fired up and “nasty,” the word embraced after Trump used it to describe Clinton. “Every day [in 2017] was a punch in the stomach,” said ASU’s Merritt, who is also the leader of the Jonesboro Indivisible group. It was as if the political storm was mimicking the record-setting natural disasters of the year. Fires, floods, freezes, drought.
Nevertheless, they persisted, and as the year grew older, protests were supplanted with day-to-day work to change the political picture.
Congressional candidate Combs acknowledges that before the rise of Donald Trump, “I never had even the most remote interest in politics. I was just a voter. I never had it on my radar to run for office.” But that changed with the national retreat from the notion that all Americans had the right
“I certainly think the current climate has woken a lot of us up,” Celeste Williams, a nurse practitioner in Bella Vista who is running for the District 95 state House seat against Republican Austin McCollum, told the Times. “You realize how much this is affecting us. It’s not OK for our children. We have to invest in the future, and that includes kids, families and policies that protect them.”
The month after the election, there was a “flood of new faces” and standing room only at a meeting of Benton County Democrats, Williams said. Since then, she’s attended town hall meetings, Ozark Indivisible huddles and United Progressives meet-ups.
“I wanted to hear what my members of Congress have to say,” Williams said of the town halls that Indivisible groups forced out of Arkansas’s congressional delegation. “I did not find their responses always compassionate.” In fact, Williams said, her opponent in the General Election has been unresponsive to her attempts to contact him on health care issues. “If you’re going to be a representative, you need to answer your phone.”
Indifference to constituents also motivated Nicole Clowney, 35, who teaches Greek and Latin at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and is running for the District 86 House seat. She’s not taking on Rep. Charlie Collins of Fayetteville — Adrienne Kvello and Denise Garner are seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge him — but as the Northwest Arkansas leader of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, Clowney was horrified at his legislation to allow guns on campuses, a move that contravened the wishes of college and university administrators and campus security officers. Clowney and a group of women from Northwest Arkansas
“I don’t understand how Rep. Collins, representing a college town, could claim to be representing the wishes of his constituents. I didn’t hear anybody support the bill, and I went to every meeting.” Clowney is convinced that a “good number” of legislators did not know what was in the bill.
Here’s what cinched Clowney’s decision to run: It was after a “conversation with my
There is indifference, and then there is disdain. That’s what Teresa Gallegos of Russellville encountered at a town hall meeting with Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Womack at Arkansas Tech University.
“Before I went, I did some research and typed my question and printed it out, so I wouldn’t forget anything,” Gallegos, 29, said. Her question was on how student loan debt was keeping young adults from being able to own a home.
“I explained to Rep. Womack that my husband and I have $160,000 in student loan debt for my bachelor’s degree and my husband’s bachelor, master’s and Ph.D.,” Gallegos said. Gallegos’ husband,
But before asking her question, Gallegos asked the attendees at the town hall to raise their hands if they had student debt. They were on a college campus; most raised their hands. She then turned to Womack and said, “I noticed you didn’t raise your hand.” Did he
Womack replied, no, he didn’t have student debt, because he had a job during college, and he joined the military, which provided more college funding. He said there were options to four-year colleges; she and her husband could have learned a trade or joined the military. College isn’t for everyone, he told her.
Since he was holding the mic, he would not let her follow up that she and her husband also worked their way through college — almost full time. “He shamed me for using student loans,” she said. Gallegos wanted to tell him she agreed that college was not for everyone, but it certainly was for her and her professor husband, and that the military is not for everyone, either.
Gallegos is running for state Senate District 16, now vacant. At a campaign coffee on a recent Saturday at Penny’s University Roastery, Gallegos met with 21 people who wanted to talk about their issues: health care, education and protecting property rights.
They did not want to talk about the horror of sex education on the Tech campus. Unlike state legislators Rep. Trevor Brown (R-Dover) and Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville), they did not find a discussion of sex and health so offensive — especially since it included LGBTQ issues — that they would have shut down Tech’s Department of Diversity and Inclusion. Bentley — the legislator most known for threatening to cut off funds to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission after her husband was warned for baiting wildlife — and Brown sponsored an amendment to limit how Tech could use state funds over the “Sex on the Lawn” event.
Womack, at least, agreed to hold a few town halls — one on the north shore of Bull Shoals Lake, conveniently accessible only by a 12-car ferry, though attendees could get there via Missouri, a long drive around the lake. U.S. Sen. John Boozman never did hold a town hall, and it took pressure from Ozark Indivisible and the terrible national publicity he got when he locked his office doors in Springdale to get Sen. Tom Cotton to condescend to meet with Arkansans. His town hall, at the Springdale High School Auditorium, drew more than 2,200 people.
Ozark Indivisible and Arkansas’s other Indivisible chapters, in Central Arkansas and such unlikely places as Jonesboro, Yellville, Harrison and Lonoke, use “calls to action” to engage people to let their congressmen know where constituents stand on issues. Benyr believes such calls to action — both from home and with trips to D.C. — helped halt the outright repeal of Obamacare. The midterm elections will get Indivisible’s attention this year.
Women have played a major role in the organization of Indivisible and other groups, Benyr guessed, because many are stay-at-home mothers. Others, like Hayden Shamel of Hot Springs, a teacher at Lakeside High School and chairman of the Democratic Party of Garland County, say it is because women are better at getting things done.
“Women are naturally empathetic. They work well with others — that’s important, because of the divisiveness [in the current climate]. People are turned off by that. They’re ready for individuals who can work with all, who are moving toward collaborating.”
Shamel, 36, is running for 4th District Congress against Republican Rep. Bruce Westerman.
“After the 2016 election,” she said, she thought, “the time is now, we have to have people who are willing to step up and take our democracy back. I felt almost led to run. It’s almost spiritual. … I know what I’m doing is the right thing. I’m completely at peace with my decision to run for office. … Everything in my life has been leading up to this moment.”
Shamel said the recent tax cut legislation in Congress and the past cuts in Arkansas are evidence that lawmakers are “focused on the wealthy instead of the ordinary.” Though it includes tax increases for the middle class after the midterm elections, the tax bill was praised by her Republican opponent as “relief for hardworking Americans.”
“My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again.’ “
— Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), on the new tax cut bill passed in Congress and signed by Trump.
Shamel said the first priority of people she’s talked to in the district is health care, which includes lowering drug costs. She also sees public schools as under assault by tax-dollar draining charter schools. She shares those stands with another woman running for the 4th District seat: independent candidate Lee McQueen of Texarkana.
McQueen, 47, said she’s been “on the fringes of political life,” volunteering for Ralph Nader and working for Jesse Jackson in their campaigns. “I’ve always been involved, mostly as support. Then I decided, with what’s been happening, to step into the big girl chair.”
“My big takeaway,” Shamel said, “is maybe it took something like what we are facing now in order for us to wake up and realize how critically important it is for all of us to be involved.”
“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow … transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming … victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.”
— Donald Trump, July 2017
Tippi McCullough, 54, said her political “journey” began with her firing from Mount St. Mary Academy for marrying her longtime partner, Barb Mariani, in 2013. She joined the Stonewall Democrats and in 2015 fought House Bill 1228, a bill that would have legalized discrimination against LGBTQ people on religious grounds. Governor Hutchinson asked for the bill’s recall after major corporations, including Walmart, Apple and Acxiom, criticized it, and the bill was later amended to mirror the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
McCullough, chair of the Democratic Party of Pulaski County, is now seeking the state House District 33 seat held by Warwick Sabin, who is running for Little Rock mayor. Her decision to run for higher office was not just “horror that someone like Donald Trump could be elected to the highest office, but that someone so supremely qualified as Hillary Clinton could not.” She said it was hard not to remember the Women’s March of 2017 without getting chills.
McCullough, who teaches English at Central High School, said her students “don’t have the luxury of nostalgia, where we look back at where we had statesmen as leaders.” What they know is eight years of President Obama, and the backlash to Obama, “and now they’re immersed in the backlash to the backlash. I heard a young woman talking in the hall [at school] about her struggle to watch the news and stay caught up, matched with wanting to disconnect from it all.”
Arkansas has a history of strong women leadership, McCullough said, rattling off the names of Hattie Caraway, the first woman elected to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate; Adolphine Terry and the Women’s Emergency Committee to open the schools after the desegregation crisis; Daisy Bates, who fought for desegregation and protected the Little Rock Nine; and Lottie Shackelford, the first woman to be elected mayor of Little Rock. All had to resist the notion that women should stay in the background, and women still do today. “Instead of recoiling, or going into a tunnel, I tend to think, ‘What can I do to help change this, to make sure in the next four years we aren’t harmed more,’ ” McCullough said. “I saw a sign about the characteristics of fascism [nationalism, sexism, efforts to control mass media, religion and government intertwined, disdain for intellectualism]
A woman candidate who is up against one of the most ardent proponents of one of those characteristics of fascism — Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway), who believes his interpretation of the Holy Bible should rule Arkansas — is psychologist Maureen Skinner of Conway. She’s another newcomer to politics.
When Obama was elected, Skinner said she thought, “I can breathe again; my children are going to be OK. Then I watched the way he was treated, the way he aged. …”
Then Trump was elected. “It blew my mind,” Skinner said. “It was horrifying to me. I ranted on Facebook and posted and shared and said surely somebody is going to do something.” Then she went to the Women’s March on Arkansas, and there “were 7,000 other people feeling as strong about the election of 2016 as I was, mobilized and mortified.” She recalled thinking, “I have
Skinner believes the reason people vote against their best interests — such as Trump supporters — is fear of change, a willingness to latch on to promises (best health care, lowest taxes) rather than bursting the comfortable bubble of their existence by questioning. Skinner said she’ll be a listener — it’s what she does for a living — rather than a
“If for some unforeseeable reason I can’t get elected, I have met some of the most incredible women and men” by getting involved in politics, Skinner said. “This is a life-changing experience. It’s such a mobilization. It’s absolutely the only good thing that Donald Trump — accidentally — did.”
A new PAC formed in 2017 in Rapert’s backyard: Faulkner Forward, which board member Julee Jaeger will help “plan for the future and help move Faulkner County forward with progressive elected representation.” The group, which is nonpartisan, will support candidates “with strong commitments to education, access to physical and mental health care, science and technology, economic opportunities and social equality.” In other words, it won’t be supporting Rapert. It’s holding a ticketed fundraiser and informational meeting at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 23 at the EM Event Center, 1100 Oak St. in Conway.
The mobilization that Skinner referred to can also be seen in the state Democratic Party, which has been seen as too “male, pale and old,” as one person in Northwest Arkansas put it. An example of this burst of enthusiasm within party politics is the Saline County Progressive Action caucus, a subset of the Saline County Democratic Party. The Progressives, as they call themselves, began forming in December 2016 after the meetings at the AEA with Pantsuit Nation women and City Director Kathy Webb. Cindy Bowen, one of the founders, said the numbers of interested women grew steadily from its inception, from 15 at its first gathering in 2016 to more than 200 at a later rally at the Bauxite Community Center. Bowen said 90 to 95 percent of the Progressives were new to the party. The group now has 260 members, half of whom are schoolteachers, Bowen said.
At the rally, “We asked, what brought you here?” Bowen said. “Some were [LGBT] high school students who were bullied or their families. There were people who had friends or themselves who were going to be affected by [cuts to] certain organizations that help the underprivileged.” Some, she said, wanted to be “political animals”; others just wanted to help their children. Bowen, 63, said a lot of the group is too young to remember when Saline County was blue, “when it was the heart of the Democratic Party.”
The Progressives have taken a community-help approach to activism, starting with the creation throughout Benton of five mini free pantries
“It’s a psychological thing,” Bowen said. “Saline County is very red. Almost like scary red. And so we try to present ourselves as people who come out and help those in need, which is what we feel the Democratic Party does — help the little guy. So
The Progressive Arkansas Women PAC — or PAW PAC — did not need a goosing from Trump to begin work to elect more progressive women to the legislature. The PAC formed in
At a recent meeting of PAW PAC, 15 or 16 women crammed into a meeting room at a downtown law office to share information about new candidates, decide what amount of money to provide and when, and discuss ways to raise new funds and future candidate
The women of PAW PAC operate by consensus; everyone is heard and what little disagreement there may be is discussed until all are satisfied with whatever action is to take place.
“We’re very ambitious,” Brownstein said. Fundraising has gone well; “we must have hit a chord.” She said she wouldn’t be surprised if the number of progressive women candidates
“We’re looking forward to 2020,” Brownstein said. “This is a long game.”
CORRECTION: Jess Virden Mallett was not referring to the proposed 2016 amendment to cap medical malpractice fees that was later struck from the ballot by the Supreme Court. She was speaking about the 2018 measure, Issue 1, that would cap attorneys’ fees and limit non-economic punitive damages in personal injury, property damage or wrongful death to $500,000.
“The current legislature, including my opponent, has introduced a ballot referendum that places an arbitrary value on human life in the Arkansas Constitution. … The majority of our legislators think life is only worth $500,000 and want to amend our constitution to reflect that. As a mother, wife, and a daughter, that is simply not acceptable. … It is very important that people know that this is still an issue, that they are trying to take away their 7th Amendment right.” Mallett, a Democrat, is running against Republican state Rep. Jim Sorvillo.