Here’s former state Rep. Kathy Webb, a Democrat, the first openly gay candidate elected to state office and the first woman to chair the House Budget Committee. And there’s Alice Stewart, former spokesman for 2012 Republican primary candidates Michelle Bachman and Rick Santorum. Together with Jessica Sabin, they’re the vanguard of Red, Webb and Blue, a 60-plus-member team walking Saturday in Little Rock’s 20th anniversary Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.
At a time when Republicans and Democrats can’t keep the federal government open, the notion that Webb and Stewart would co-captain anything but a scrum runs counter to script. On the first day of the federal shutdown earlier this month, Stewart was preparing to go on Anderson Cooper’s and Larry Kudlow’s political talk shows to denounce Democratic intransigence and the bane of Obamacare.
“If Kathy were going on the show, we would be on opposite sides of the table,” she said, “but this isn’t about politics, this is about cancer.” And “coming together as a team, at the end of the day, it’s such a small, small little thing we can do, but it’s something we can do to maybe help her realize that she’s got support there.”
For Webb’s personal politics, it’s more complicated still. Komen for the Cure raised a fuss last year when it cut off funding for Planned Parenthood, a decision denounced by the National Organization for Women. Webb is a former NOW national secretary; she is also the founder of Chicago’s Komen affiliate and organizer of its first race, in 1997 (three years after the first Race for the Cure in Little Rock).
“I’ve been a supporter of Komen for more than 20 years, and just because they made a bad decision in my mind, I’m not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I have a team in the race this year, and the team captain is Alice Stewart, and we’re appealing to our friends on both sides to come together for this.”
“That’s pretty cool. That’s pretty cool,” said Robert Moore, the former speaker of the House.
When he ran for that seat in the 2010 fiscal session, he let it be known that a vote for him was a vote for Webb as budget chairman. He won by a comfortable margin.
“She can bridge any gap.”
Here’s Kathy Webb at The Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, in a flop-py ball cap and a loose Flashdance-style overshirt that says “I Believed I Could So I Did.”
The place, part of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, is like an ultra-modern student union building on a well-endowed campus. If it were a college, staff in white coats and repp ties might grimace at all the people in pajama bottoms lolling in armchairs, their shaved heads hovered above smartphone and tablet screens. But these aren’t students. They’re people with cancer.
Inside the “infusion lab,” nurse Katherine cinches an elastic tourniquet around Webb’s upper arm and slaps her wrist.
“I think you’ve knocked on my door before,” nurse Katherine whispers.
“Really? Where do you live?”
“Then I would have knocked on your door.”
Webb was the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s pick in 2006 when she ran for her House seat in part because of her door-to-door approach.
“I hope you voted for me,” Webb says.
“You ran against my friend Jordan,” the nurse says.
Kathy the Conqueror, Foe of Friends - all 100-plus pounds of her after both breasts and axillary lymph nodes have been removed, and the chemotherapy has sapped her appetite and withered her frame. Webb did defeat nurse Katherine’s friend Jordan Johnson seven years ago, but they’re not political adversaries. In fact, she’s helping in his bid for another run at the Ledge.
“So we can all be friends,” the nurse says.
“We can all be friends. And that’s OK you didn’t vote [for me], so long as you didn’t, like, hate me or anything.”
“I didn’t,” she says. “I don’t.”
Then nurse Katherine buries a needle the size of a toothpick into one of Webb’s wrist veins, and the former legislator closes her eyes and frowns.The best medicine for her stage II cancer is a poison so bright it triggers her taste buds. It tastes like machine parts.
“I’ll get your sister,” I tell her, and she opens her eyes.
Here’s Kathy Webb with tears in her eyes.
MORE THAN ONE GOOD IDEA
She was born 12 years after her brother, nine years after her sister, the last offspring of Maurice and Atha Webb. Soon after, Maurice uprooted the family to pursue a life of service as a Methodist minister. Kathy’s earliest memories are of Conway, then Dallas, then Little Rock. A passionate athlete - in one family photo, she’s in her baseball uniform - she played basketball and tennis at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia.
There was virtually never a time she wasn’t “political.” In 1960, she was John F. Kennedy’s “campaign manager” in her fifth-grade class. The next year, she was denied a school safety patrol assignment because of her sex, so she “appealed the decision” to the principal. A settlement was reached whereby she was school fire marshal.
“From that experience, I learned - I mean, I’ve been an organizer all around the country - I’ve taught people, you don’t always get what you want on the first try. You have to have short-term victories along the way.”
Beginning in junior high and continuing through college, Webb ran for school office. She lost nearly as many races as she won. Her senior year at Hall High School she was class secretary, behind President Jimmy Moses and Vice President Wally Allen, and ran for vice president of the entire student body and lost.
The senior class, as it always did, raised money for some kind of gift for the school. As a member of student council, Webb wanted to use the money to help poor people, and she said so.
“It was probably unrealistic. Um, I didn’t have a specific enough plan.”
Yes, she did.
“I wanted to help low-income people in Appalachia.”
The consensus class project was to erect a statue in honor of itself.
Political lesson learned.
“You have to do things that also make other people feel good, like it made the class feel good to have that statue that said ‘Hall High Home ofthe Warriors Class of 1967.’”
There’s more than one good idea, she says. And she means it.
Another lesson is know your constituents. As an underclassman at Randolph-Macon, she ran a campaign chiefly to improve conditions for the hourly staff at the college, especially those in the laundry where it was hot and “degrading.”
“It didn’t resonate.”
She lost for the last time.
Here’s Webb in 1982, head of NOW’s Pulaski County affiliate and running for its national secretary from her perch as an office supplies account executive.
Slightly her junior, Debbie Willhite managed that campaign.
“We pretty much operated out of my little Dodge Omni and her little Chevrolet Chevette, and we went all over the country.”
Webb staked her fortune on attending NOW chapter meetings. One of the central responsibilities of the national secretary is chapter building, so attending meetings served not only to ingratiate her to the electors but as a de facto internship as well. Many, many stops were beyond the Continental Divide, in California, and the two little cars - neither known for its longevity - served them well.
“Remarkably reliable,” Willhite said.
Would you say that about your candidate, too?
“Yes, she was.”
Webb ran that race “out.” At that point in her life, she had quit drinking, come out to her siblings and parents, and vowed never to obfuscate either. Discovering her homosexuality was confusing enough.
“At first, it was like deny, deny” - in fact, Webb was married from 1973-1975. “Then, it was, ‘There’s something wrong with you.’ I think there’s a lot less of that today. I don’t think there’s as many people who think there’s something wrong with them. But [then], there was no Ellen, there was no Tammy Baldwin, there [were] no role models.”
In 1982, Webb’s earnestness and tirelessness, and the face time she put in with the electorate, won out even though she was the only candidate not endorsed by NOW’s outgoing administration.
“We broke the slate, [but] she became a good working partner with the others who won. She was beloved within the organization,” Willhite said.
She won re-election in 1986. But eventually it was time for a complete break with organizing and politics. She answered an ad hung on her doorknobthat suggested she could earn $100,000 working for Domino’s. She began as an employee in one of Frank Meeks’ 40-plus franchises. In nine months, she was manager of a shop in Rosslyn, Va., and at the end of a year, she was the first woman in the corporation’s history to be named Rookie Manager of the Year.
In 1992, Meeks, a former aide to Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, made Webb debate him before the 150-member management team; he played George W. Bush, she played Bill Clinton. Awkward as it was, it spoke loudly of Meeks’ regard for her.
GIVE SOME, THEN SOME
In 1994 she moved to Chicago to take a management job with Bruegger’s bagel chain. After a couple of years, she opened a barbecue restaurant, Hoxie’s, named for her father’s northeastern Arkansas hometown.
In 2000 she and Nancy Tesmer, her new business and romantic partner, struck out for Memphis to open Lilly’s Dim Sum, Then Some. (Lilly was her dog’s name.)
Hoxie’s survived for a while under the auspices of Webb’s old business partner, but it didn’t last more than a couple of years.
In 2002, Webb and Tesmer opened a Lilly’s in Little Rock, and again, the old location closed in short order.
Pizza, bagels, barbecue, Asian fusion - Webb could follow a recipe or create with equal flair.
“She was mainly in the kitchen” at the restaurant in west Little Rock, says Ely Bondoc, who worked for Webb for eight years. “In there, she was the one who came up with the menu.”
She was also an early adopter of environmentally responsible products in the restaurant, organic and local produce in the cuisine, Bondoc said. “I think that she, if she found something that she thought was a challenge, she just did it. I think that’s just her personality.”CONSENSUS BUILDER
Webb’s mother died in 2003. Because each Christmas Atha Williams Webb made a donation to the Rice Depot in her daughter’s name, Webb created Lilly’s Vegetable Fried Rice for the Depot’s Simple Pleasures line of dried rice mixes. She and Tesmer also shaved 10 percent of the sales of the first Monday every month and profits off Lilly’s monthly balance sheets to donate to dozens of organizations, including Ronald McDonald House, Arkansas Foodbank, CARE animal rescue, and area arts organizations.
Three years ago, she and Tesmer split, and she sold her share of the restaurant to Tesmer.
Hunger has always been a particular sensitivity for her, although she has never been “hungry,” and at the end of 2011 when Rhonda Sanders stepped down as director of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, Webb put in for the job.
In the position, she has encountered people who are educated and well-off and surprised to discover there is hunger in Arkansas. More often she encounters “people [who] think that if you’re an adult and you’re hungry, it’s because of bad choices you’ve made, and you deserve to be hungry.”
This is Webb’s metier - soft-pedaling her crusade to nonbelievers. She’s a fixer, not a fighter. Not everyone will see things her way - say, that the hungry are vulnerable and deserve our care, not our verdict - but she reaches high for anyone on the fence.
In the Legislature, debates naturally arose that touched on social justice issues dear to her. In her first session, it was a bill prohibiting cohabiting couples (both unmarried heterosexual couples and gay couples) from fostering or adopting children. She asked then-Speaker Benny Petrus to assign the bill to her committee, and one by one, she sought counsel with her fellow committee members. The day of the committee vote, the bill was killed.
In 2011, an anti-bullying bill that explicitly addressed sexual orientation arose. She didn’t sponsor it, in part because she believed such an association would color the bill. Her statesenator, David Johnson, sponsored it.
“Did we get that through huge rallies and demonstrations and stuff? No. Is my name on it? No. Did we get the job done? We got the job done. I care more about getting the job done, and David did a wonderful job, and Bubba Powers agreed to carry it in the House, and who better to carry that bill than a guy named Bubba.”
The Webb way is not for everyone, and to be sure, she lost many votes. Still, two of her closest gal pals from the Ledge are Reps. Mary Lou Slinkard (R-Gravette) and Stephanie Malone (R-Fort Smith). They’re actual friends - the kind who meet in Fayetteville to see Lucinda Williams.
At a time when so many storylines feature one side stuck at an impasse because the other side is just so doggone dumb, the moral of this story is there’s more than one good idea.
Here’s Kathy Webb on the Broadway Bridge with a Wonder Woman headband partly hiding her cancer crew cut. She’s cradling several of her past Komen race medals. Behind her is conservative commentator Stewart, and Jessica Sabin, wife of the man who replaced Webb in the Legislature. Together, with dozens more, they’re a team.
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Oct. 21, 1949, in Blytheville
THE THING ABOUT RUNNING A RESTAURANT is that it’s really hard - like a political campaign that never ends - but it can be incredibly rewarding with the people you can serve.
THE HOUSEHOLD CHORE I CARE LEAST ABOUT: weed whacking
THE CHURCH I ATTEND: First United Methodist Church, where I’m a member of the laity
MY FIRST JOB was working for the Revenue Department one summer in high school as a clerk.
THE BOOK I’VE READ MOST, which is not the same as my favorite book, I guess, is A Tale of Two Cities.
THE MOVIE I’VE SEEN MOST: Mamma Mia!
MY MOTHER’S FAVORITE ADAGE, which she had on a plaque that I now have hanging up, is “What you are is God’s gift to you. What you become is your gift to God.”
ONE WORD (MY FRIENDS WOULD USE) TO SUM ME UP: Earnest