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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Simply because they can

by John Brummett | November 15, 2022 at 5:00 a.m.

State Sen. Linda Chesterfield was minding her own business presumably, living in the south-central to southwestern section of Pulaski County.

She looked up one day last year to find that her Republican colleagues in the Legislature--she is an endangered-species Democrat--had carved her neighborhood, heavy with Black and Hispanic population, out of the 2nd Congressional District.

They'd attached it to the population-losing 4th Congressional District extending from the Louisiana line north to ... well, Grant County until this gerrymandered redraw was brought up northward past her house.

I call it a gerrymander because Republicans deliberately took historically reliable Democratic votes from the 2nd District to lessen the inconvenience to French Hill's congressional re-election. They explained--cleverly, I guess--that, with population shifts in the state necessitating some new district design, the easiest and most logical thing was to draw everything toward the center of the state with the biggest population, and do its equalizing by making fun little surgical cuts in the big central, and Democratic, county.

Suddenly Chesterfield and her legislative constituents were no longer associated congressionally with their neighbors. They were sent as foster children into a family adjoining Louisiana.

So, on Thursday, the Senate welcomed its new members for an organizational meeting for next year's regular session. In one exercise, the 35 senators-elect broke into their four congressional district caucuses to select members for the two important interim committees, meaning those tending to business between actual legislative sessions. They are the Legislative Council and Legislative Joint Auditing.

Chesterfield walked into her new south Arkansas family, aware that she and another Black woman senator, Stephanie Flowers of Pine Bluff, were the longest-serving members in the room. That was good, since they both had long enjoyed serving on the interim Legislative Council and would get seats there again based on business as usual deploying the seniority system.

But then a young Republican senator, Ben Gilmore, proposed that the 4th District caucus choose its members of those interim committees by its preference, not by seniority. That meant the nine Republicans would pick among themselves for the two council seats.

The Republican action meant that Chesterfield and Flowers were effectively being dumped by white male Republicans. But, as the Republicans saw it, Chesterfield and Flowers were paying a natural consequence of the election in which the pitiable Democrat minority in the Senate, formerly eight of 35, had been reduced to six.

Chesterfield declared her treatment racist. Republicans professed to be aghast. They said it was simply partisan.

They're probably telling the truth. The purpose was to take the seats, and the per diem, for Republicans, which required ditching any Democrats with seniority. That those were Chesterfield and Flowers was just bum luck.

For that matter, Republicans said, both women probably could get on the Legislative Council anyway through their tiny party caucus.

That was true; Chesterfield was elected whip of the other five Senate Democrats, and, by that, will get a council seat. Flowers, I'm told--and she didn't return my call over the weekend to confirm--didn't want any side-door appointment if her Republican colleagues were going to treat her that way.

But the full indignity to Chesterfield was the full scenario, the old one-two punch: She got booted out of her own county's congressional district in '21, then booted off Legislative Council in '22, at least until other means got her back on.

The Republican move was heavy-handed and wholly unnecessary. It wouldn't have hurt the 4th District Republicans at all to make a nod to the magnanimous--to let their two longer-serving Democratic colleagues stay on Legislative Council from their caucus, where they'd be as outnumbered as they are in the Capitol and in Arkansas. But at least they'd be personally respected.

Previously on Thursday, Republican senators had passed a rule that there could be no more than two Democrats on standing committees, meaning the main ones meeting to consider bills during sessions. They said the rule would assure that committees mirror the full Senate membership and reflect the voters' wishes.

Substantively, the rule meant nothing. Senators could have continued choosing committees on a seniority basis--except for chairmanships, which go to Republicans--without any remote threat to any bill that Republican senators want to rush through a committee, whether restrictive on abortion or nonrestrictive on guns or punitive to traditional public education.

There was no way the six Democrats could have stacked themselves into a majority or even a spunky fighting force on any committee.

And even if they did, Republicans would still have the 29-6 majority on the floor to pull any bill out of committee and vote on it at any time.

State Sen. Clarke Tucker was heard to ask Republican senators simply ... "why?" Was the election not punishing enough to Democrats?

Why? Because they could.

Tucker thought it all a bad omen for relations in the coming session.

Republican senators think the bad omen for Democrats in Arkansas took place on Election Day.

I'd say it was the election in 2010 when Fox News' ratings soared and that alien creature named Barack Obama dared to try to help poor people with their health care.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.



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