Following the 2016 election1, a number of things happened, both locally and nationally, almost none of which were what you might call “good” for Arkansas.2
Perhaps the most troubling of these,3 however, was the demonstration of a complete lack of character, backbone, or any sense of honesty by Reps. Jeff Wardlaw, David Hillman, and (most egregiously, for reasons we’ll come back to shortly) Joe Jett.
You see, each of these
gentlemen alleged humans decided after the election that, by golly, he did not want to be a Democrat anymore and was going to jump ship to the Arkansas Republican Party. Rather than put these deplorables all in a single basket, however, let’s look at each in turn, then we will tie it all together in the big picture analysis.
Jeff Wardlaw (Dist. 8, Bradley). Rep. Wardlaw was first elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2010, taking his seat in 2011, meaning he was one of the few Democrats to win in the Tea Party Bloodbath of 2010, though this was perhaps due to his general-election opponent being an Independent, rather than a Republican.4 He remained a Democrat throughout the 88th General Assembly, and was unopposed in either the primary or general elections in 2012, when he again ran as a Democrat. He was similarly unopposed in either the primary or general elections in 2014 and 2016, and he remained a Democrat throughout those elections, meaning that he was not afraid of being a Democrat on a ballot in Arkansas for three elections during the tenure of President Obama or during the campaign of Hillary Clinton.
On November 9, however, a single day after his fourth win as a Democrat, Wardlaw announced he was becoming a Republican. Why? Well, according to him:
Over the last few years my constituency has gradually changed and I have found the issues that are important to them, which I share, such as protecting our 2nd Amendment rights, protecting the unborn, traditional marriage and a strong military are more in line with the Republican Party. It’s my responsibility to represent my constituents to the best of my ability and I believe this move will allow me to do just that.
You may be wondering, as I am, why — if he feels his constituency is more Republican than Democrat these days — he did not switch parties before the election. Keep that thought in mind; we’ll come back to it.
David Hillman (Dist. 13, Almyra). Rep. Hillman was first elected to the House in 2012, taking his seat in 2013 for the 89th General Assembly. In that 2012 election — you know, the one where President Obama was running for reelection — Hillman defeated Republican challenger Garland Derden, Jr., by roughly two percent of the vote. (For context, Obama lost Arkansas by about 24 points.) Hillman was unopposed in both the primary and the general election in 2014 and 2016. Meaning that the only time he had to run a real race, he beat a Republican opponent in quite possibly the worst possible year for a non-incumbent Democrat to run in Arkansas since Reconstruction.
On November 21, Hillman switched his affiliation to the ARGOP. His explanation?
After much prayer, thought, and consultation (and a few sleepless nights) in order to better represent the changing political views of the people in our district, I have decided to change my party affiliation to Republican.
Oh. Ok. Jesus and some sleep-deprived “consultation” with unnamed persons. Got it. I suppose God did not want him to switch parties prior to the 2016 campaign for some reason. Either that, or Hillman did not bother to ask the Almighty at that point. Nevertheless, Hillman’s switch gave the Republicans 75 seats in the House, which — if you are the mathy type — means a 3/4 supermajority. This move might be the most egregious if not for…
Rep. Joe Jett (Dist. 56, Success). Rep. Jett was first elected to the Arkansas House along with Rep. Hillman in 2012, when Jett, unlike Hillman, was unopposed in the general election. He was similarly unopposed in 2014 and 2016. Across six elections (primaries and generals combined), Jett has never had to face off against a challenger, Republican or otherwise. On December 9, however, Jett switched his party affiliation, joining the ARGOP, and stating:
This is not a decision I made lightly. I have given this a considerable amount of time, thought and prayer. I was encouraged to move forward after meeting with constituents throughout District 56.
Yep, more prayer, plus meetings with the same constituents that, time and again, voted for Jett as a Democrat and never felt the slightest desire to find someone to run against Jett as a Republican, even in the face of an Arkansas electorate that votes R damn near reflexively these days.
Jett’s departure from the Arkansas Democratic Party, however, reeks of a level of cowardly opportunism that should make everyone uncomfortable. Yes, Hillman’s switch gave the Republicans a supermajority, and that is bad enough. But Jett’s switch took the Taxation Committee, which the Democrats (including Jett, who is CHAIR of that committee!) had successfully managed to eke out an 11-9 majority on, and made the committee 10-10, negating the entire effort and strategy that the Democrats had used to obtain that majority. While this might make Tim Griffin less absurdly whiny, it undermines the committee-selection process in a particularly disturbing manner.
Big Picture Thoughts. So what? Why should you care? Several reasons, actually. First, there is the simple fact that these men ran under false pretenses, pretending to be a part of a party that they were planning to jettison as soon as they got reelected. For all of the hyperbole in modern America that “the parties are all the same” and the like, the manner in which these representatives went about changing parties shows that they know that there is some difference in the parties in Arkansas and that they are more than happy to exploit those differences by getting reelected in Democratic-leaning districts by pretending to be Democrats if that means they will not have to face a Democratic challenger in the general election.
Secondly, there is the timing of the party switching. None of these men faced a challenger in 2014, which just so happens to be the same year that Arkansas elected a Republican governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer, and auditor, to go along with a Republican secretary of state and land commissioner. If these three representatives wanted to change with the political tide in Arkansas because they thought the ARGOP better represented their beliefs and the beliefs of their constituents, 2014 would have made perfect sense as a time to make that change.
Instead, they waited and ran again as Democrats, with Hillary Clinton at the top of the ballot and President Obama still in office. Then, once Donald Trump was elected President, they suddenly felt the need to switch parties. In response, I sent the following email to Reps. Hillman and Wardlaw, but received no response from either (of course):
Dear Rep. ________,
It was with a great deal of disappointment that I read about your change from the Democratic to the Republican party. I am writing, however, to ask why you made such a change at this point?
After all, if you truly had the courage of your convictions, you would have made this change prior to the election, and — indeed — would have run as a Republican so that your constituents were not misled into believing they were voting for someone with principles and a defined worldview that does not change for the sake of political expediency.
More troubling, however, is that by changing now — in the wake of an election that saw such wide embrace of the policies and ideas of Donald Trump — you seem to be signaling to the state of Arkansas and your voters that you were simply biding time in the Democratic party until the Republican party got far enough to the right that you could finally openly embrace the kind of racism, xenophobia, bigotry, and anti-intellectualism that you’ve always craved.
I am legitimately curious to hear your response. Why did you change parties now, at this particular point?
It’s that third paragraph that makes the timing of the change so bizarre. If the Republican Party of 2014 was not to these representatives’ liking, why is the Republican Party of 2016? What about the current party dynamics makes a move from Democrat to Republican now make more sense than a move two years ago? Were each of these men just sitting around, thinking, “you know…I know I’m a Democrat, but I tell you what, if the Arkansas GOP ever goes way to the right on social issues and starts pandering to the alt-right, I’d switch in a heartbeat!”?
Finally, you should be concerned because of what a party switch really means. You see, when you run for state representative as a Democrat, one of the documents that you fill out contains an affidavit of eligibility, which reads, in pertinent part:
“I agree to…support the Principles of the Democratic Party,” written right there in affidavit format for the candidate to sign. This affidavit of eligibility is a mandatory requirement for appearing on a primary ballot under Ark. Code Ann. 7-7-301. While somewhat outside the scope of this post, a person who gets on a primary ballot by, in part, falsely declaring an intent to support the Democratic principles runs dangerously close to placing oneself on a ballot through a false statement. At the very, very least, it smells awful, since the candidate is misleading the party to get on the ballot and, in the case of all three men here, accepting contributions from the party and from Democratic donors for months after filing.
But let’s play devil’s advocate for a minute and assume, for whatever reason, that none of these three representatives knew at the time of filing that they were making a false statement on that affidavit. While that is better in the abstract, it really just brings us back to where we started — if you did not know prior to the filing deadline in early 2016 that you were going to jump ship, what changed between that filing deadline and the election that made you change your mind? More specifically, what occurred in 2016 that was absent following the election in 2014? I have trouble coming up with a good answer.
The rub here is that it is not like a candidate is required to remain in any party post-election. It is conceivable that a person could be elected to an office as a Democrat and, over a span of time prior to the next election, decide that the party was moving away from what he or she believed. We saw as much with former Rep. Nate Bell (Dist. 20, Mena) during his final term in the House. Unlike the cowards listed in this post, however, Rep. Bell simply became an independent.
Look, Nate Bell and I have never agreed on much, but I respect his ability to see the political world as something beyond a black-and-white, A-or-B dichotomy. If Reps. Wardlaw, Hillman, and Jett truly believed that the Democratic Party, to which they had belong and pledged to support multiple times, had suddenly moved away from what they believed, a brave move would have been to announce that they were leaving the party and becoming Independents. Then, if they wanted, they could run as Republicans in 2018, giving their constituents a full and fair opportunity to decide if those representatives were still in line with what the districts wanted.
That move, however, would not have been politically expedient, nor would it have allowed these men to so brazenly undermine the electoral and committee-assignment processes. It’s much easier to just chalk your decision up to prayer, abandon your professed beliefs, and swear fealty to your new Republican masters.
Or, as it will come to be known, That Time America Completely Lost Its Fucking Mind↩
For example, Jason Rapert did not wind up in the ICU after vigorously masturbating about the election outcome, though you KNOW he worked that flesh fiddle as hard as he could.↩
The election of Twitler notwithstanding, of course.↩
Wardlaw defeated a Democrat in the primary in 2010 as well.↩