Open State House Seat Spurs Arkansas Democratic Primary: Leigh vs. Walker

Feb 24, 2016

The Arkansas House of Representatives chamber.

Democrats in Arkansas don’t hold any congressional seats or control any branch of government but there are some spots on the map, at the state legislative level, where the party hopes to make advances.

An open seat for the state House, HD38, a district that narrowly turned Republican in 2014 is giving Democrats hope to make up for a lot of ground lost since the state’s GOP shift.

But first, Democrats have to settle who their nominee will be for the district containing parts of North Little Rock and Sherwood.

“It starts at the 30/40 Interstate and goes up 107, which is also JFK…,” said Walker. “…it compromises Park Hill, Lakewood, Overbrook, Indian Hill,” Leigh said.

Kent Walker and Victoria Leigh, both longtime residents and attorneys, are vying for the House seat. The incumbent Donnie Copeland is vacating the office to challenge State Senator Jane English in the Republican primary.

Political scientist Jay Barth of Hendix College says it’s a situation that encourages intra-party competition in a relatively quiet Democratic primary season – outside of the presidential race.

“You certainly are very likely to see primary contests when you have an open seat. That really creates opportunities,” said Barth. “The district, which is a little bit more of a swing district, is going to be a real battle in the fall.”

Barth says unlike many Republican primaries there aren’t any prevailing schisms in the Democratic Party playing out in local races. Leigh and Walker both singled out pre-K education as a top priority.

Victoria Leigh at KUAR with her newborn.
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

“I would work to implement a universal pre-K program. Ideally that would be part of our public school system not part of a daycare type system, which is where most of our pre-K opportunities are,” Leigh said.

Walker named it first as one of several things he’s concerned about, “pre-K education, making sure we invest pennies in the beginning on children to thread the needle and make sure their education starts out in the right way versus the back-end, remedial education, which we have to spend significantly more sums of money,”

Their plans will have to overcome opposition in the state Legislature where cost of living adjustments to sustain existing pre-K programs have met resistance in recent years. Tax cuts on the other hand have a good deal of support from legislative leaders. Walker, an opponent of tax increases, says that lowering income taxes is “not my issue” either. Although he is interested in economic incentive packages that reduce taxes for businesses.

A photo from Kent Walker's campaign website.
Credit Kent Walker for State Representative.

“Tax incentives are something I’m in favor of, capital investment to start new business. If a business is going to invest capital I don’t mind a short-time tax reduction for that investment but the investment has to follow through,” he said. “The jobs have to follow through.”

Leigh identified lowering rates for middle income people as a tax change she’d like to pursue.

“The middle class has taken a lot of hits the last several years and income tax breaks would be incredibly beneficial to the middle class. Our middle class is shrinking,” she said.

Both candidates think the legislature should avoid trying to usurp courts on issues like abortion and LGBT rights. Leigh calls herself a “progressive.”

“I am pro-equality under the law. The law needs to apply to everyone equally. That’s well settled, not quite as well settled as a woman’s right to choose,” said Leigh.

Walker says the progressive label doesn’t fit him, though he doesn’t want the state House to legislate on abortion or against court wishes on LGBT issues. Instead he’d prefer that both sides stop talking about such social issues, calling it a “quagmire.” He doesn’t know if an issue like including gender identity and sexual orientation in state civil rights protections is a good idea. Leigh supports the inclusion.

“We all know that people in Arkansas are going to fight over it and at the end of the day there will be little to no resolution,” said Walker. “Can you advocate? Sure. But I don’t want that to be a focus of any campaign, frankly.”

And such issues are likely to be overshadowed on March 1. Jay Barth says local politics are usually beyond the attention of voters, especially at the same time as a presidential contest. Barth says a personal touch can go a long way in small races.

“They’re often about who is from what community, who has done what in their past political or business life, and of course the consummate personality,” said Barth.

We’ll leave that assessment to the locals. 19 House seats have primary contests, four are between Democrats. The chamber is comprised of 100 state representatives.