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story.lead_photo.caption Joe Washington, chairman of the Democratic Party of White County, stands on the back deck of his home in Searcy. Washington, a former bank examiner for the FDIC, retired in 2015 after being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy a few years prior. He became involved with the Democratic Party in White County in 2017 and was elected chairman Jan. 15. - Photo by Mark Buffalo

Joe Washington isn’t scared of a challenge.

The 50-year-old Searcy man has overcome many challenges in his life, from his beginnings in Mississippi to being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy in 2011. And being the chairman of the Democratic Party of White County is no different.

“Challenges aren’t that big of a deal for me,” Washington said. “I’ve been dealing with that all along. You’re looking at a guy who has muscular dystrophy, and it took me two years after the doctors told me that I’m wearing myself out before I considered retiring.”

He worked for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. as a banking examiner.

“I’m not afraid of failure, but I’m very concerned that I do the very best that I possibly can to make a real difference. I just don’t know what that is yet.”

In addition to his political activities, Washington is an ordained CME (Christian Methodist Episcopal) preacher.

A native of Natchez, Mississippi, he was raised by his grandmother.

“I grew up very poor,” he said. “My mother passed away when I was 10 or 11. I was raised by my grandmother. She was the kind of woman who didn’t want my father to get in trouble. So we didn’t have any kind of assistance or anything. She wouldn’t even file for welfare with me, my brother or my sister.”

Washington said growing up in a household with his grandparents, an uncle and his siblings was a strain financially for his family.

“Growing up, I decided I did not want to be in that position,” he said. “I saw what other kids had. I figured the only way I could get out of that was education. I didn’t have any athletic skills. I was somewhat OK in school. Growing up, I was told that I was lazy, not because I was lazy but because, look at these arms; there’s not much muscle there.”

Washington would not know what his physical issues were until much later in life.

“I had muscular dystrophy, but because of the poverty and lack of health care, that wasn’t diagnosed until a long time later. It eventually became the reason why I retired. I was physically wearing my body out.”

After graduating from high school, Washington received a full scholarship to Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. He earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting. While in college, Washington worked for the Internal Revenue Service. He also earned a master’s degree in accounting from Jackson State.

“I never did become a certified public accountant,” Washington said.

Instead, he took a job with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. That’s how he ended up in Arkansas.

“That’s where the FDIC’s job was, in North Little Rock,” he said, referring to moving to Arkansas in 1992. “When you’re working as a banking examiner, you don’t get to spend too much time at home. You’re always gong to the banks. A friend of mine introduced me to the lady who would eventually become my wife. She (Mitzi) lived in Pulaski County, also. We got married and had our first child, [a son, J.D.]

“We would come up here [to Searcy] and do things. It got to the point where we were a little leery about day care, and there is a brand-new grandmother and grandfather who want to be with the child.”

Washington said he or his wife would drive to Searcy every day to take J.D. to his grandparents to watch him while his parents worked.

“We finally realized that we’re spending all this time getting up there and getting back,” Washington said. “We thought, ‘We might as well live in Searcy.’”

In 1999, the Washingtons built their house where they now live.

Washington said he was always politically minded but kept his opinions to himself for the most part because of his career with the FDIC.

“I retired in 2015,” he said. “Working as a banking examiner, you do not have the ability to be vocal. You keep your thoughts to yourself. It’s kind of difficult to go in there and tell a banker something and them know you’re all political. I had that mentality of being political, but I kept my thoughts to myself.”

Washington said he would occasionally post things on social media.

“Like everybody, I knew in 2016 that Hillary Clinton was gong to win, and she didn’t,” he said. “I went off the grid. I did not post anything. I was sick to my stomach. People were actually wondering if I was OK.”

From the time he retired in 2015 through the November 2016 general election, Washington said, he would post his political thoughts.

“I wasn’t working anymore. … I can say what I want,” he said. “Then I shut down after the election. I was literally shocked.”

Washington said he quit watching the news on television.

“I got back on social media. … I didn’t delete my accounts,” he said. “I saw an invite for the Democratic meeting in White County, and I went. … You have to understand, at the time, a black man in Arkansas, I’ve got the thick skin that I grew that I had built up in Mississippi. I understood certain things. I always believed that there was going to be some good people. Good was always going to win. That was shaken, as far as I was concerned.”

Washington said he got involved with the Democratic Party of White County in July 2017. He said it was “therapy.”

“I go to this Democratic meeting, and I’m finding all of these like-minded people,” he said. “So I’m getting this therapy. I’m starting to feel that this is much better now. Some people understand my concerns. That really helped me.”

During that first meeting that Washington attended, state Rep. Michael John Gray, D-Augusta, spoke. He is the chairman of the state Democratic Party.

“He did an awesome job of explaining what Democrats are,” Washington said. “He said something that I was very impressed by. A lot of people are Democrats. They just don’t know it. There are basically two requirements. One, you care about people. Second is that you think for yourself.

“That stuck with me.”

Gray said that Washington, along with others in the White County Democratic Party, have done a good job of promoting the party and getting involved with the communities.

“I think Joe is doing a good job, as well as other members of the committee,” Gray said. “They are saying, ‘We’re in White County, which has been traditionally Republican, but they did send Gov. Mike Beebe to Little Rock every time unopposed when he represented them.’ They are fighting somewhat of an uphill battle, but [Washington] is getting out there and doing the work. He’s doing something right. He’s setting an example in all parts of his life.”

Washington eventually became the chairman of the party after serving as vice chairman. He was elected Jan. 15, Martin Luther King Day.

One of the biggest challenges Washington sees with the Democratic Party in White County is voter turnout.

“One of the things I’ve learned is that we’re not spending enough time on the attack on democracy right now,” he said. “We’re woefully concerned. We’re trying to work on that, caring about people’s attitudes.”

The Democratic Party has had fundraisers where the money went to pay for school lunches of public-school students in White County.

He said the party has a three-part approach.

“One is political,” he said. “We want to help candidates win. Second is social, including youth initiatives and elderly initiatives. You’ve got elderly people with mobility issues and hunger issues. Third is civic.

“We want to show people that being a Democrat is actually a way of life,” Washington said. “Everyone expects us to help the political candidates.”

Washington said Democrats think for themselves.

“We have 75 members in White County,” he said. “They are smart, and they think for themselves. Trying to be the chair for something like that is a hard job, but they are very encouraged, very active, so I love it.”

Washington said he wants to get more minorities involved in the party. He said that out of the 75 members, only four are African-American.

“If I could get more inside and get those people involved, then we could actually come up with solid solutions and put in a platform and overall plan and go out to the community with that,” he said.

The Democratic Party of White County meets every third Monday. The party has been meeting at Arkansas State University-Searcy but will move into a new office on Race Avenue in Searcy in the near future.

“We’re very excited about that,” Washington said. “We are looking at doing a grand opening. We may even join the Searcy Area Chamber of Commerce. We won’t be able to have as strong of a voice if we don’t have a seat at the table.”

Washington said the party in White County had diminished following former Gov. Mike Beebe, a Searcy native, leaving office in January 2015.

“I think it was in April 2017, it started to pick back up,” he said. “It was basically inactive from January 2015 to April 2017. I wasn’t there when all the planning was going on.”

But Washington is enjoying the fruits of the labor of those who helped get the Democratic Party of White County going again.

“I told someone a couple of days ago that I love it,” he said. “I don’t like it. … I love it. I enjoy it a whole lot. I feel like we’re making a difference.”

Staff writer Mark Buffalo can be reached at (501) 399-3676 or mbuffalo@arkansasonline.com.

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