Friday, May 14, 2010

EDITORIAL >>For Bryles (D), Smith (R)

We take an uncommon interest in the politics of the First Congressional District, the western boundary of which we lie athwart.

The First District once embraced most of the delta farm region, but now it is about half mountain, and redistricting next year almost certainly will detach White County from the Second District and join it to its neighbor Lonoke County in the First District, which is what we used to call the farm district. The First probably will pick up another mountain county or two along the Missouri border and perhaps lose a farm county or two in the south.

All that is two years away and we have an election for Congress next week. We mention all the geographical trivia because this may be the last election in which the farm counties will be the dominant influence in the election of the district’s delegate to Congress and crop farming the congressman’s pre-eminent concern.

If you live in Lonoke, Prairie or one of the other counties of the middle Delta, you ought to keep the changing demographics in mind. In other words, choose someone who is unusually studious, attuned to the needs of an agriculture-based economy and politically gifted enough to keep the seat in a new geographical order.

Six Democrats and two Republicans are running in the primaries Tuesday. Let’s review the Democratic field first.

Rep. Marion Berry, who is retiring, has thrown his organization behind his chief of staff, Chad Causey of Jonesboro, which undoubtedly will give the young man a leg up in the big field. Causey insinuates that he will vote just like Berry would vote. He adopts Berry’s stance on matters such as health-care reform. Berry, you will remember, voted for the most sweeping health-care reform bill last year but then switched and voted against the more conservative version from the Senate and the final compromise. The suspicion was that he detected rising opposition to reform in the district and voted against it to give his protégé some cover in the elections.

Tim Wooldridge of Paragould, who was a state legislator for 16 years, was made the front-runner from the start because he was the best known. He was beaten four years ago by Bill Halter in a race for lieutenant governor and then took a job as a lobbyist for public universities in Arkansas. As a state senator and representative he was given to filing weird bills, such as one requiring that executions be done in public like the good old days of public hangings so that the executions would presumably be televised. He has run a homophobic campaign. He said employers should be able to fire employees if they think they are gay or lesbian and in fact should be encouraged to do it.

Given his posture on so many issues, Wooldridge has been beset by speculation that he would switch to the Republican Party after his election. His 2006 campaign manager went to work for Jim Holt, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor that year and now the most extreme of the eight Republican candidates of the United States Senate. Last week, Wooldridge said flatly that he would remain a Democrat, and Democrats should take him at his word.

Nevertheless, his election would prove to be an embarrassment to the state. We have had enough humiliation.

The other candidates are Terry G. Green of Mountain Home, an orthopedic surgeon; state Rep. David Cook, a Vietnam veteran and retired school administrator who lives in Williford, a small town east of Cherokee Village; Ben Ponder of Mountain Home, a young businessman with a flashy résumé, including a doctoral degree, and a head full of innovative and off-the-wall ideas, and state Sen. Steve Bryles of Blytheville, who is in the cotton business.

The best candidates, we think, are Bryles and Cook because they have a record of effective lawmaking and consensus building. Congress could stand more of those qualities.

Our choice in the end is Steve Bryles owing to his relative youth — yes, we count 52 as young — and his remarkable success in crafting solutions to big problems and building consensus for them in the legislature, particularly for education and economic development. Government reporters for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette named him one of the most influential legislators and he was honored by the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, the Arkansas Education Association and the Arkansas Municipal League for his work for school reform and economic development.

Washington could use some of those skills.

The Republican primary will pit Rick Crawford of Jonesboro, a radio broadcaster, and Princella D. Smith of Wynne. No Republican has represented east Arkansas in Congress since Reconstruction, but Republicans are hopeful that this is their year.

We find Smith’s candidacy unusually attractive. She is smart and smooth and at the age of only 26, she has some impressive political experience. In 2006, she worked in the losing Maryland Senate campaign of Michael Steele, the current chairman of the Republican National Committee, worked for a spell in Newt Gingrich’s political organization and been an aide to freshman Louisiana Republican Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao of New Orleans, the renegade who cast the only Republican vote in Congress last year for a universal health-care bill.

Smith would be the first African-American member of Congress from Arkansas — Arkansas is the only Southern state never to have been so represented — and the first African-American Republican female in Congress, from anywhere. Arkansas could use some recognition like that.

She would be pretty good, too. Princella Smith has our endorsement in the Republican primary.

Make your own judgment, but whatever district you live in and whatever party you favor this year — vote. It’s important.