Brian Chilson

Joshua Mahony is running for the Democratic Party nomination to challenge U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton in the 2020 general election. I recently spoke with Mahony about his candidacy and policies, including the precarious position of the Arkansas farmer, how morality and justice should shape the immigration debate, and the values he learned growing up in El Dorado.

Are Arkansas’s elected officials failing us in Washington, D.C.? 

In a lot of ways, I don’t feel like members of our delegation, particularly Sen. Tom Cotton, really have our interests in mind. Senator Cotton has been running for president since he got elected to Congress. He was barely in Congress before he decided to run for Senate. I appreciate his military service, but he came back to Arkansas really only to run for office and seemed to be pushed by folks who had picked him out as a potential candidate to run for president one day and to push their own agenda. So to see him being supported by Goldman Sachs and the Koch brothers and having their corporate interests in mind more than the interests of rural Arkansans, our farmers and people trying to get by every day is where he is failing Arkansas. 

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Back in May, Senator Cotton mentioned that farmers were going to have to “sacrifice” and, more recently, to “hold on” while markets are lost due to President Trump’s tariffs. What would you say to Arkansas farmers?

The first thing I would say [is] there is no reason for the tariffs. If we need to renegotiate trade deals we can do that without throwing out what was already in place. I can’t find an economist who believes tariffs are a good idea. With regard to our farmers, it is such a high overhead and hard life to live, I would say our farmers already sacrifice a lot. They feed our country and other countries as well. Farming is the backbone and the spirit of Arkansas. Making sure we have their backs because they support us is important to me. We need to push back on the tariffs. Farmers want to work. They don’t want a handout or a bailout. Let’s make sure they are able to work and those markets they have built up over decades are not lost. The markets are not going to come back the day after the tariffs go away. I am really concerned we have done longterm, irreparable harm to the rice and soybean farming industry in Arkansas. 

I have had the chance to get out and talk to farmers. There is an awareness of the cost of the tariffs. The price per bushel of soybeans is going down. The pain is being felt. I think that nobody really wants to talk about the long-term effects of this, but I’ve felt an edge of grimness from them knowing this could turn out really bad.

Senator Cotton gets a lot of criticism for being an absentee legislator. How will you be different? 

We’ve got to be in Arkansas. I don’t know how you do the job of being a senator and work on behalf of people if you are not here in the state visiting with them, seeing what challenges they are facing and finding solutions. You cannot do that over the phone. 

When we talk about Arkansas, we talk about Little Rock or Northwest Arkansas, but that is not the bulk of the state. We are a rural state. Our small communities are what makes our home state so special. There is a certain heart and character there we need to value. We need to make sure our rural communities have the resources to thrive and make sure people are not moving off because there are no jobs or worrying about their local hospitals closing. Let’s make sure the economic opportunities are there. 

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Where do you stand on health care? 

I very much like the idea of Medicare for all, but I have visited with a lot of people in Arkansas who like their private insurance. Why can’t we do both? Let’s make sure we have a public option in place, but for people who like their private insurance and want to have private insurance, that’s fine. I think that will take some of the fear out of it. 

When I was at the Arkansas Single Parent Scholarship Fund, we would often have a mom who was working two or three part-time jobs. She made too much money to receive any kind of aid, but she was not making enough money to buy private insurance. We need to make sure situations like that never happen. The local community would have to take up money so she could buy her prescription, but that is not helping her get healthy. I don’t think in 2019 in the United States that should ever be an issue. Everyone should have essential health-care benefits. People should not get sick and die because of lack of health care. 

I met a woman last year. She had saved up money for her grandkids to go to school. She found out she needed heart surgery that would cost more than the money she had saved up. She was just a few years too young for Medicare. Didn’t have insurance. She planned to wait it out so she could give her grandkids a chance for the education she did not have instead of spending the money on the surgery. She was gambling to live long enough to have some type of insurance coverage. It terrifies me that people are having to make these decisions. 

You ran against U.S. Rep. Steve Womack in 2018 and lost. What did you learn from that campaign? What are you most proud of about that race?

The thing I learned the most is that there are more similarities in people in Arkansas than we think. People are a lot more reasonable than Fox News portrays. I think we hear the loudest voices on the cable networks. When you get into the communities and visit with people, you find reasonable folks. I had an incredible experience in Berryville. An older guy, a biker, came up to me and he was upset and red-faced. I thought he was going to be unhappy with my political views. He first started talking about taking care of people here before we start sending money to other countries. I’ve heard that talking point and expected him to say we need to take care of our veterans and our homeless, which we absolutely should be doing. What he actually followed up with was his opinion that we should have, in his words, “socialized medicine.” His wife had died two years ago of lung cancer and he was still paying the bills. He was a proud guy and didn’t want anyone else to have to go through that. He voted for President Trump, but he said we have to fix health care. His response was a surprise to me. Now, I feel bad that it surprised me, because I think people’s views are all across the board and they are willing to listen more than we think. 

What I’m most proud of is that we got 17,000 more Democrats to come out and vote that had not voted in the past decade. We did some really good stuff with some hard-working college kids and myself just going out and getting out in front of people. This time, we have brought in people who have experience running big campaigns and working in the South. We are pairing them with people in Arkansas so that we build an infrastructure and spread that access to knowledge and skills around the state that will last beyond this campaign. 

I wrote earlier this year that I hoped to see state Sen. Joyce Elliott in this race against Cotton. Instead, she came out as an early supporter of your campaign. How do answer those who ask why you and not a woman? 

Having Senator Elliott’s support is kind of unbelievable. I have a hard time processing it. She is a hero for a lot of us. My mom would talk about how wonderful she was. Everyone speaks about her that way. She is dynamic and energizing. Knowing I can call her at any time and ask for her input, which I do, especially on policy, to make sure we haven’t missed anything. She thinks so far ahead due to her experience. 

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As to being a man running when we should have more women running for office, we tried to be very thoughtful and visit with people. We visited with Senator Elliott first, as my intention was to help her run. She made the decision not to, so early on we put the campaign together with the idea that we could step aside, but we were going ahead and doing the work in case someone did not stand up. We kept reaching out to people to see if they were running. We did not want to be a gatekeeper.

A large number of young people seem to be especially energized by your campaign. How does that help motivate you?

The support of the young people and Senator Elliott are kind of the same. You just hope you come close to living up to what they are looking for and what they need and their expectations. I know we are not going to get everything right, but we can’t do it without them. 

What we do to keep people safe from mass shootings, especially our kids?

I have always been an advocate of background checks and been really pleased to see Governor Hutchinson talking about red-flag laws. People forget, but before Columbine happened, Westside happened in Jonesboro. So we have this idea that it cannot happen here, but it already did. I still try to figure out what the right answers are there. I do not think it is a one-side-wins and one-side-loses. There is a place where we can honor the Second Amendment and have our kids feel like they can go to school and not have to worry about being murdered in a domestic terror attack. Nobody should go to the grocery store or a night out with friends and worry they are going to be murdered. It is horrifying. I feel like we are finally in a position to be having this discussion. I want people to know the Second Amendment is in a safe place. We should be comfortable talking about solutions to keeping our kids safe at school without fear the Second Amendment is going to disappear. My gosh, our children have a right to go to school safely, too. 

What is the solution on immigration? What needs to happen in Washington? 

I focus on Arkansas a lot, but another essence of this campaign is justice. To paraphrase Dr. Cornel West, justice is what love looks like in public. Justice is treating people fairly. I saw the attorney general of Mississippi, after the ICE raids left children without their parents, say that before we are a nation of immigrants, we are a nation of laws. I disagree with him. Before all of that, we are a nation of morals. The defining morality of the United States is one of justice, but we have had laws that are not just.

We have had laws that supported slavery. We have had Jim Crow laws. I got serious when I saw those children in Mississippi. I cannot imagine getting out of school and finding out your parents are gone. I am incredibly angry we would subject any child to this trauma. It is wrong. It is not moral. It is not just to the children. It is not just to the families who fled to this country, most likely to get away from poverty and violence. So many people in Arkansas who are here undocumented have gone out of their way to pay taxes knowing they are not entitled to any kind of refund or entited to Social Security.

Our economic prosperity has been lifted up by them being here. Our companies made a place for them and that is why they came here. We have to make sure there are protections in place for them. We have to make sure they have a pathway to citizenship. We need to make sure we have the resources at our border so when people come in claiming asylum they are treated appropriately and not put in extended incarceration just for seeking asylum. And certainly not separating their children away from them. We have basically kidnapped children. I think we modernize our ports of entry and our border. We have a right to protect our border, but we can do that in a way that keeps bad guys out and treats the people who are coming for asylum and safety that respects their dignity. 

This race an uphill battle for you. What keeps you motivated?

My values were shaped by my parents and my community, too. One of the things I love about Arkansas is that we don’t have much, but we have each other. I grew up in El Dorado. The town is reflective of a lot of our communities in Arkansas. We come together around issues when we have the chance. In El Dorado, we got together around the Murphy Promise Scholarship Program. We later passed a millage with the highest ever voter turnout to build the new high school. The people there knew if they invested in their children and made sure they had a future, they were investing in themselves, too. They knew the systemic change that would happen there. I carry with me the same spirit and values I got from El Dorado for making sure people have access to prosperity, opportunity, improving themselves and earning the skills they want, whether it be a technical degree, certification or college.

Finally, I have to ask. What are you listening to on the campaign trail?

Johnny Cash, Prince, Tina Turner and AC/DC. “Wu-Tang vs. The Beatles: Enter the Magical Mystery Chambers.” I listen to this album fairly religiously. Senator Elliott says we have to have “swag” to win.