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Central Arkansas congressional seat race pits Democrat labeled 'moderate,' 3 called progressives

by Hunter Field | May 6, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

In the four-way primary for central Arkansas' congressional seat, the Democrats' positions on health care -- three support a single-payer solution and the other favors a Medicare buy-in proposal -- reflect the tenor of the race's debate.

Clarke Tucker, an attorney and two-term state lawmaker, has been painted by pundits and his three opponents as the more moderate choice. He's also been portrayed as the favorite, backed by national party officials and a campaign war chest that's triple the combined amount of his opponents.

The other three candidates -- Paul Spencer, a history teacher at Catholic High School for Boys; Gwen Combs, a teacher in the Little Rock School District; and Jonathan Dunkley, director of operations at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service -- are running in support of Medicare-for-all.

Tucker's opponents have attacked him for being "part of the establishment" and not progressive enough. He thinks a single-payer solution isn't feasible right now, but he takes issue with criticism that his nuanced positions mean he lacks passion.

"I absolutely believe you can be a moderate and have a lot of passion," he said in a recent interview. "I certainly have a lot of passion about the issues I care about. I may be more in the middle of the spectrum than at the end of the spectrum, but that doesn't mean that I don't have passion."

The four Democrats are vying for a shot to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. French Hill, who has held the office since 2015.

Joe Swafford of Maumelle also is running as a Libertarian for the seat.

The district includes Pulaski, Conway, Van Buren, White, Perry, Faulkner and Saline counties. The GOP has held the seat since 2011.

[FULL LIST: All candidates for major state offices]

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which sought Tucker to run for the slot, believes it's a district Democrats have a chance to flip in November.

Early voting for the primary begins Monday, and Election Day is May 22. If no candidate wins a majority, the two highest vote-getters would move to a runoff on June 19.

Hill, when commenting on the primary race, has tied the Democrats to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, saying he looks forward to a general election and contrasting his record of "lower taxes, smaller government and a stronger economy."

Combs, Spencer and Tucker have all said that they wouldn't support Pelosi for House leadership if elected. Dunkley said he would wait until meeting Pelosi before making a decision.

[FULL LIST: Statewide contested races in May 22 primary]


Combs, 43, jumped into politics after President Donald Trump was elected and after watching Arkansas' congressional delegation support a proposal to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

First, she organized the Arkansas Women's March. Then the Ohio native filed as a candidate with the Federal Election Commission in the early hours of July 28 after watching a late-night health care vote on the Senate floor on C-SPAN.

"I reached that point and realized that I need to do more for this society than I'm able to do within the confines of my classroom," she said.

Combs, who regularly describes herself as a fighter, teaches gifted students at Stephens Elementary in Little Rock, and she served for three years in the Air Force.

Combs believes that health care, education and financial security are human rights. She supports Medicare for all, debt-free public education from pre-kindergarten to employability and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Universal health care, she said, is the only way to ensure equity and justice in health care.

"I think it's going to take some work to get there, but I think it's feasible," she said. "I think we're probably an election cycle or two away from being able to get there, and that's if the right people are elected."

She wants to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal dollars from being used on abortion except in cases of rape or incest or when the mother's life is at risk.

"I don't think you can say universal health care could work if the Hyde Amendment is in place," she said. "It's like universal, except for women."

Combs also wants school districts to shift their focus. Too often, she said, schools work to prepare students for college when postsecondary education may not necessarily be the right path.

"In K-12 school, we basically test and test and remediate and work on improving weak areas rather than bolstering strength areas," Combs said. "We encourage everybody to be this well-rounded, perfectly pieced puzzle that all fits in the go-to-college slot and that doesn't work for a lot of people."

Combs pledged to refuse money from the National Rifle Association, and she wants to expand background checks for purchasing firearms and close certain gun-buying loopholes. However, she also noted that her family owns guns, and she's not trying to take them away from responsible owners.

"It's one of the first things I was told: 'Don't talk about guns, gays or abortion,'" Combs said. "I'm not the kind of person to not talk about what's on my mind, what's important. So I hope that people can grow up enough to read the real news instead of the fake news. The propaganda tells them they're coming to take away their guns but that's not what I'm interested in."

Combs also wants Congress to pass an equal-rights amendment to make gay and transgender people a protected class like racial and religious minorities.

To fund her health care, education and other policy proposals, Combs said there's room to trim the nation's defense budget, particularly by scaling back military involvement in the Middle East and cutting spending on nuclear armament.

She also wants to remove the cap on Social Security taxes. Currently, the federal government applies Social Security taxes only to the first $128,400 of an individual's income.

She called the Republican-led tax-cut plan passed through Congress in 2017 "a bunch of crap," saying that it benefits large corporations on the backs of "hardworking Arkansans."

She often notes that she's the only veteran, public schoolteacher and woman in the race.

"I think that gives me a really unique perspective to be able to represent all Arkansans," she said. "I can relate to almost everybody in some way shape or form. I think that's what we need from Washington right now."

Combs has raised $25,760, and she has $7,587 in the bank, according to the latest campaign-finance report.


Dunkley, 38, long knew he wanted to run for public office, but he decided on the 2nd District race after a frank conversation with his 9-year-old daughter, who asked him what he was doing to make the world a better place.

After explaining his job, Dunkley's daughter replied, "It isn't enough Dad, Trump is our president."

An Independence, La., native, Dunkley graduated from Philander Smith College and the Clinton School, where he now works as director of operations. Dunkley also has a nonprofit that mentors young people.

He claims to be the most progressive candidate in the race, and his three main platforms are Medicare for all, debt-free college and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. If elected, he wants to quickly address education and health care.

"That's the goal for my campaign: get in a position where people are impacted positively quickly, and I think those are two areas where we can address issues in our society," he said.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was the best scenario when it passed, Dunkley said, but he concedes that it hurt some middle-income earners. The current health care situation, Dunkley said, is set up to make profits for insurance companies.

A move to a single-payer system "isn't the boogeyman scenario people are painting," Dunkley said.

One of the chief issues he'd like to address is the mounting pile of student-loan debt. College education, he said, should be a gift, but it has become a curse looming over too many.

"This is an upside-down problem that we've got to address immediately," Dunkley said. "And we're going to have to wipe some of this debt off the books. I know people don't want hear that, but I don't know how we as a society think we're going to get young people -- people are putting off purchasing their first home, having kids, buying new cars. This stuff impacts our economy."

Dunkley believes the government could generate a lot of revenue by capitalizing on the legalization of marijuana. He pointed to several states that have generated substantial revenue by taxing recreational cannabis.

The drug, according to Dunkley, should be legal, and one of the first things he'd like to do as a lawmaker would be removing it from the list of controlled substances.

He supports abortion rights and favors repealing the Hyde Amendment.

"I can't imagine that we create legislation to force a woman to carry a child to term," Dunkley said. "That to me is just as archaic and outrageous as it gets."

He worked in the foster-care system at the Arkansas Department of Human Services, so he emphasizes fostering and adoption.

The son of a Jamaican immigrant, Dunkley takes issue with Trump's rhetoric on immigration. His father moved to the U.S. after being assaulted and locked in the trunk of his own cab in Jamaica.

"Most of these folks are escaping violence or they fear for their life," Dunkley said. "So when I hear the president speak the way he does, I just think either he's getting bad intel or he doesn't understand the intricacies of why people flee their home."

Dunkley wants the government to conduct more gun-violence research, and he supports regulating guns in a way that doesn't infringe on responsible gun owners.

"But at the same time, we can't pretend that every gun owner is responsible," he said.

Dunkley would be Arkansas' first black congressman if elected. While he recognizes the historical significance, Dunkley hasn't made his skin color a major component of his campaign.

Dunkley has raised $9,845 in contributions, and he lent his campaign $10,000. He has $970 in the bank, according to his most recent finance report.


A career of teaching high school students finally pushed Spencer to run for office.

For years, the history and government teacher has been involved in ethics and campaign-finance changes, but this is his first try at public office.

"Like I tell my students, you have to advocate for yourself and do what you believe," Spencer said. "And if you don't act on your displeasure you don't have a right to really complain about it."

The Steubenville, Ohio, native takes a populist approach to most issues, decrying "powerful political interests" and saying that Congress has turned into a "giant cookie jar" for lawmakers to enrich themselves.

He's vowed to refuse any donations from political action committees, and he will impose a six-year, three-term limit on his time in Congress.

A former Republican, Spencer deals out criticism for both political parties without hesitation.

"The parties themselves, they're the ultimate special interests, they're the ultimate money-in-politics problem," he said. "They get in and they want to keep generating more income for themselves and more relevance for themselves."

His downtown North Little Rock campaign headquarters is decorated with a huge poster of unsuccessful candidates that have had the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

While heralding progressive solutions like Medicare for all, student-debt elimination and union organization, Spencer still holds anti-abortion views.

He doesn't see any reasonable path to changing the existing laws on abortion and suspects it would only place an undue burden on the poor and increase the number of illegal abortions. Instead, he wants to address the root causes like domestic abuse and poverty.

"Those things you can remedy legislatively, but you can't deny a woman who wants to have an abortion for whatever other reason she wants to do that," he said. "The Supreme Court has spoken and the law stands. I don't think I really want to see that changed until you do away with the root causes."

Medicare for all is the best way to address inequities in the U.S. health care system, Spencer said, and he believes it will save the country trillions by eliminating the "laundering" of money through insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

He also wants to institute banking services at post offices. Banks, Spencer said, have left rural and poor areas, forcing many to turn instead to predatory payday lenders with their high interest rate and fees. The U.S. Postal Service, Spencer said, could offer free checking and savings accounts and low-interest small-business loans.

Spencer also proposes eliminating $1.4 trillion of the nation's student debt. This, he said, would boost the economy and pay for itself within 10 years.

Spencer, who collects World War I rifles, says the Second Amendment isn't sacrosanct, and he believes it should be subject to common-sense regulation like the First Amendment. He'd like to see the government try to take a gun census every decade with the regular U.S. Census. He also wants to revert back to the assault-weapons ban of the early 1990s, and close a variety of gun-buying loopholes.

"Some people are going to argue, and probably rightfully so in some cases, that these measures won't stop criminals from doing anything," Spencer said. "But you know what, if you don't do anything you're culpable. You're complicit in your complacency."

Spencer, according to the most recent campaign-finance report, has raised $251,479; he had $120,324 in the bank.


Tucker began considering a run for Congress last summer after the passage of the American Health Care Act, which repealed portions of the Affordable Care Act. Tucker's candidacy was solidified after he was diagnosed with bladder cancer in August.

"As I lived through and beat cancer, I watched as Congress voted to make our health care more expensive, undo good programs like Arkansas Works and strip away health care for Arkansans with pre-existing conditions," he said after announcing his campaign in February. "I have watched as politicians used children's health insurance as a bargaining chip, placing greater loyalty to their political party than to our state and country, and I decided I could no longer stand by and watch."

He points to his work on health care in a Republican supermajority Legislature as proof he could effect change in Washington, D.C. Discussing legislation with colleagues across the political aisle has become routine when he's introducing new legislation, Tucker said.

"It's remarkable when you communicate with someone with a different perspective you pretty much always learn something from that conversation," he said. "I would have those conversations and almost always modify the bill in some way that I thought was better as a result of that conversation."

Instead of a single-payer system, Tucker supports "Medicare X," a proposal that would allow people to buy into Medicare, but people who like their employer-based plans, for example, could keep those plans.

The plan would offer choices and coverage for everyone while increasing competition, according to the Little Rock native.

Education and the economy, Tucker said, go hand in hand. He's a proponent of expanding the availability of pre-kindergarten, which he added would address so many social problems.

In an interview, Tucker said that statistics show a steep drop-off in teenage pregnancies in those who attended preschool. That would decrease abortion, which Tucker said should be "safe, legal and rare."

Tucker also wants to work to reduce the cost of public college, and he said that student-loan debt should be able to be refinanced like any other type of debt for lower interest rates.

The gender pay gap, Tucker said, is unconscionable, and paid family leave should be expanded.

"I just cannot believe Congress hasn't taken action to make sure that women earn the same amount for the same work that a man does," Tucker said, adding that the U.S. is the only industrialized country without a paid-family-leave policy.

Tucker pointed to legislation he introduced in the Arkansas House to curb children and domestic abusers' access to guns. In Congress, he'd vote to close certain gun-buying loopholes and ensuring weapons of war aren't being used to kill Americans on American soil.

"The issue right now in Congress is not responsible gun owners like myself, who want to be able to hunt and protect their family," Tucker said. "It's with a Congress that's unwilling to take steps to pass common-sense gun-safety laws that seven, eight or even nine out of 10 Americans support."

Tucker has raised $493,212 in campaign contributions, according to the latest finance reports, and he had $444,838 in the bank.

Candidates for 2nd Congressional District
A map showing the location of the 2nd Congressional District

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Print Headline: Race pits Democrat labeled 'moderate,' 3 called progressives


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