When we first printed this in the Ozark Gazette we got some criticism from those who felt that we had no business covering anything even remotely Republican. But we felt that it was an important story – again, one being overlooked by the daily newspapers.
No More “Good Old Boys”?
How the Republican Party began to take itself seriously in Washington County
Jim McDonald straightens out his arm, his closed fist pointing at you. “What do you see?” he asks. The answer seems obvious – four fingers, a thumb, clenched tightly. It is a fist. McDonald shakes his head. “I don’t see a fist,” he says. From his perception, he sees the end of his arm, and the top of his hand. McDonald feels that we should all realize that, despite our different ways of looking at situations, everyone is really looking at the same things and that “most of us are not that far apart.”
Perceptions are very important to Jim McDonald, who is running again for Washington County Judge. McDonald faces opposition in the May primary from fellow Republican Ralph Hudson, who currently sits on the Washington County Quorum Court.
McDonald says that the needs of county residents are largely ignored by those in office. He claims that he will restore “trust, confidence, and integrity” to county government. He thinks that current County Judge Charles Johnson is not always forthcoming with all of the information that the Quorum Court’s Justices of the Peace need in order to make decisions.
He says that county issues are not partisan issues and that many local Democrats support him in his bid for the seat. He says that he would not be comfortable in a county in which Republicans held a majority of the seats, because then the GOP would be the ones in control, and just as likely to be as inattentive as he claims the Democrats are. He believes strongly in checks and balances.
The condition of county roads is very important to Jim McDonald, who would like to see an “aggressive” program that would make the roads safer and easier for people to drive on. He also wants to hard surface every gravel road on which school busses drive on. There are those who say that such a goal, while laudable, would be prohibitively expensive.
Infrastructure, especially as far as the future growth of Washington County is concerned, is on McDonald’s mind a lot. These are all issues which McDonald has run on in the past, with some variation on the specifics.
There is a more subtle perception at work in this election, however. McDonald’s opponent, Ralph Hudson, is an individual that many credit for bringing the local party into some prominence. As County Chairman in 1994, Hudson helped spearhead a campaign in which Republicans almost gained a majority of the seats on the Washington County Quorum Court.
Hudson is concerned about trash, ethics, term limits, infrastructure and what he sees as the failings of the county Planning Board. He wants more accountability, especially from groups the county gives money to. He says that the county government is run by a “good old boy” mentality.
Both men are interested in the concerns of rural residents, who often feel that county policies affect them adversely. At the same time, each acknowledges that most of the voters live in cities. Thus they may spend a fair part of their campaigning time educating city voters about rural concerns.
There is an aggressiveness in the local Republican Party that has not been seen in the past. Hudson has been involved in Arkansas Republican politics since the early 1990s. His 1998 campaign slogan, “No More Good Old Boys,” seems directed as much to some in the Republican Party as it does to Democrats in county government. Those who may be thought of as the “Old Guard” in the Republican Party are no longer active, while most of the new crop of candidates seem much more sophisticated and focused.
Once he became chairman Hudson says, “I felt that the party needed to raise its level of credibility in Washington County, and the only the only way we were going to do that was to put together a very focused attack on offices, based upon solid candidates.” Under Hudson’s aegis, the party went out and actively sought candidates.
In the past, whoever wanted to run as a Republican was welcome; in fact, one philosophy seemed to be, “don’t give up any seat without a fight.” This often meant Quixotic campaigns, in which office seekers would run in races in which it was virtually acknowledged up front that they had no chance of winning.
Some made a virtual career out of losing elections.
Now candidates are sought with solid reputations, the ability to transmit the message that the party wants communicated, and a willingness to lose, if necessary, to further the needs of the party. Hudson appointed a GOP county recruitment team, and candidates were looked over carefully.
Another break with the past was the decision not to return candidates’ initial filing fees, which had always been done in order to lessen the candidates’ financial load. Now the party keeps the money, and gives significantly more financial help to candidates with the most chance of winning races. In the past, the party had not been particularly well-off financially, with the annual Lincoln Day Dinner being the main source of income. The last several dinners have been more successful, so the party had more resources with which to help candidates.
In 1996 a committee was formed to oversee how much money was to be given out to candidates, headed by Tom Lundstrom of Springdale. Each candidate had to fill out a form, stating not only how much money they desired, but how much money they had raised so far, whether they had a campaign committee, their plans for winning the election, etc.
It was felt that the answers would help determine how committed each person was to winning their race. Based upon the answers, the committee then decided on the amount of money given. The recommendations went to the executive committee, which decided whether to uphold them.
Some in the party did not take to the new direction well. Some office seekers, as in the case of Jim McDonald, were not given as much money as they had hoped for; rumours flew of violent arguments.
Hudson says that while he respects McDonald’s feelings on the matter, he does not apologize for the way that the committee and the party went about their decision making process.
In conversation, McDonald dismissed the new system as approaching “machine politics” level, though he was careful not to describe what is happening as any sort of split or schism. He says that those running the party now are just building on the efforts of those in the past who were willing to publicly stand up as Republicans, such as former J.P. Joe Robson and the late Leland “Tiny” Hamilton.
And, though he did not say so out loud, surely also Jim McDonald, who ran at a time when the Washington County Republican Party was not held in very high regard, and it was not “expedient” to announce as a Republican?
True, there was not a particular amount of scrutiny on candidates in the past, which Hudson claims is the reason the party was faring poorly in Washington County. While many who ran were considered fine individuals, there was a perception that some of them were just, in the words of Hudson, “country bumpkins.” There were also many candidates who would be very active in an election year, but would never be seen between elections.
Hudson disputes the machine label. “Ultimately the proof is in the pudding. When our candidates are elected, is government better? Does it compare to what we want it to accomplish? If the candidates are doing that, I don’t think it is fair to categorize the Republican elected officials as part of a machine.”
McDonald claims that he was approached by several in the party who do not like the direction the party seems to be headed in. He says that there are some in both parties who say “you do what you have to do to win.” It bothers him a great deal when he perceives Republicans as having that attitude.
Whoever wins the primary will face a Democratic challenger – either Jerry Hunton or Ron Woodruff – in November. But there will be another victory for the winner of the Republican primary this May. For this may well be a battle for the heart and soul of the Washington County Republican Party.
Jim McDonald and Ralph Hudson both espouse ideas which fit in well with their party’s conservative agenda. Some of their ideas are exactly alike. They part company, however, on how the party should travel into the future. The vote this spring may have more to do with how Republicans feel about that, than on whether or not either man should be County Judge.
Ozark Gazette – April 20, 1998