Democrat Marcus Jones unofficially kicks off campaign for Arkansas’ 2nd District seat

Retired Army Col. Marcus Jones (left) visits with John R. and Elaine Watts of Little Rock during his news conference at the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History in Little Rock on Thursday, March 28, 2024. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)
Retired Army Col. Marcus Jones (left) visits with John R. and Elaine Watts of Little Rock during his news conference at the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History in Little Rock on Thursday, March 28, 2024. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Marcus Jones thinks now is the time a Democrat can unseat five-term incumbent U.S. Rep. French Hill.

Jones, 51, a retired army colonel from Little Rock, is the latest Democrat to challenge Hill, 67, a Republican and former banker from Little Rock who was first elected to Congress in 2014. On Thursday, Jones unofficially kicked off his general election campaign, saying his status as a veteran is the key to flipping Arkansas' 2nd Congressional District.

The candidate held a news conference at the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History to announce Terri Hollingsworth -- the circuit and county clerk of Pulaski County -- as his first campaign chairperson and to unveil an endorsement from Rich Fierro, an Army veteran who tackled the gunman who shot and killed five people at Club Q in Colorado Springs.

"I'm in the race because I've been looking out for Americans for 30 years, and I want to continue that service to Arkansans in [the] U.S. Congress," Jones said. "I want to serve veterans like only a veteran can."

Democrats have long sought to retake Arkansas' 2nd District, but the task has become even harder after the state Legislature redrew Arkansas' congressional map in 2021, dividing the state's largest jurisdiction and key Democratic stronghold, Pulaski County, among the 1st, 2nd and 4th congressional districts.

A day after the March 5 primary election, Arkansas Democrats held a news conference unveiling polling data showing that Democrats still lag behind the GOP among Arkansans but are about level with the GOP in several key battleground state House districts.

Arkansas' 2nd District has been the most competitive of the state's four congressional districts in recent cycles, but Democrats have failed each time to unseat Hill.

In 2022, Hill won 60% of the vote, beating Democrat Quintessa Hathaway and Libertarian Michael White. In 2020, Hill bested then-state Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock. In 2018, a mid-term election year where national Democrats won 41 seats and retook the House of Representatives, the blue wave failed to take hold in the 2nd District, as Hill secured 52% of the vote, defeating state Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock.

"If you were going to build in a lab two amazing congressional candidates, you would pick Senator Clarke Tucker and Senator Joyce Elliott," Jones said. "But I would also tell you times are different and there's a change, whether you call it a change in the wind or a sea change, Arkansans are sick and tired of extremism and right now the Republican Party represents extremism."

Responding to Jones, Judith Goodson, chairwoman of Hill's campaign, said that the Little Rock Democrat is not in touch with Arkansans.

"Our opponent represents the Joe Biden wing and that's the extreme left, and that doesn't connect with Arkansas voters," Goodson said.

Jones repeatedly emphasized his military service -- 26 years in the U.S. Army, including two tours in Iraq -- and that winning the veteran vote is key to flipping the district blue.

"We have two large military installations in the 2nd District, Little Rock Air Force Base being one and Camp Robinson being the other," Jones said. "There are thousands upon thousands of veterans and associated family members that oftentimes are not involved in the political process, and we're trying to energize them, and harness that energy and bring their perspective into this race."

When asked by a reporter on Thursday how he will reach out to "more rural, right-leaning parts of the district," Jones emphasized his military service.

"To be very frank about it, the fact that I am a veteran in many cases is more acceptable to a lot of the more rural parts of the district," Jones said.

Jones also criticized Hill for two separate votes on the PACT Act, a law that expands veterans' health benefits for those exposed to toxic burn bits. Jones said Hill originally voted against the bill in the initial roll call vote but changed his vote "when the ceremonial re-vote happened [and] he realized he's on the wrong side of history and changed his vote."

Goodson said Jones mischaracterized what went on in D.C. around the PACT Act. She said Hill voted for an improved version of the bill that contained double the money and prevented a backlog at the Veterans Administration.

"French does not take ceremonial votes," Goodson said.

Fierro, who came to prominence in 2022 for stopping a shooting at a Colorado night club, said he's been friends with Jones since the two served in the Army together. Fierro, who served under Jones in Iraq from 2008-2009, referred to the candidate as a "battle buddy" whom he was happy to endorse, despite describing himself as apolitical.

According to a campaign biography, Jones served as a field artillery officer in the Middle East, including deployments to Iraq and Kuwait.

"Marcus was the strong guy in the unit, passionate. He was the one that everybody turned to," Fierro said.

On Hollingsworth, Jones touted her popularity, pointing to the fact that the Pulaski County clerk received more votes than any other candidate in Pulaski County for the 2018 election. Hollingsworth said Jones reached out early in his campaign to ask for her advice and said she knew from that conversation that he was the candidate to take on Hill.

"I knew from day one he was going to have French Hill sweating in his bones all the way to D.C.," Hollingsworth said.

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