Arkansas State Sen. Jim Hendren has moved his political party affiliation from Republican to Independent and has plans to form a new organization aimed at working in bipartisan fashion, he announced Thursday.
“Like so many of you, I look around at our country today and find it hard to recognize. I see colleagues unable or unwilling to work with each other, neighbors and families divided against each other, and our statehouse too often unable to function for the people of Arkansas. And this isn’t just because of political difference. It’s because we’ve let ourselves become deaf to other folks’ needs and perspectives. And our political parties have not only allowed this, but too often encouraged and rewarded it,” Hendren said in a lengthy press release and accompanying video (available at end of this post).
“I also worry that our country is losing its civility in the public square. I hear language I wouldn’t want our children to hear. I see our fellow citizens turning each other into enemies because of differences of opinion or party. I’ve seen our politics become a winner-take-all game that leaves too many folks losing. And I ask myself how I can honor my oath to serve all of the people of Arkansas when we’re only listening to a louder and smaller base. Sadly, what I see is a broken system that needs to be fixed. It’s time for change and some tough decisions.
“Today, I’m announcing that I am leaving the Republican party and will continue to serve the people of Arkansas as an independent with no party affiliation,” he said.
Hendren, a businessman from Gravette, is the past Senate President Pro Tempore and is the nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
“This [decision] comes after many sleepless nights; a lot of serious consideration; and it comes with sadness and disappointment. But it’s clear-eyed. I’m making this decision because my commitment to our state and our country is greater than loyalty to any political party. This decision is one of the hardest that I’ve ever made in my life. Many of you know that my family and I have long been active members of the Republican party. And many will continue to be,” Hendren said.
“Division has been taken to a whole new level. Our political discourse has become boldly ‘us versus them.’ From some quarters it is loudly mean and disrespectful to our country, our traditions, and our fellow citizens. And way too often we seem to be unable to agree on simple facts. I’ve watched a systemic change at the core of our politics that emboldens our worst impulses, the most extreme thinking, disables policymaking, and hurts all of us, Hendren said.
“It would be easy to blame this on one person or a few. But, sadly, it runs more deeply and cuts more broadly than that. Over the course of the 2016 campaign season alone, I heard people demonized as rapists and murderers. I watched the encouragement of the worst voices of racism, nationalism, and violence. And I watched my service, and the service of my fellow soldiers, dishonored with the ridicule of a gold star family whose son had served with distinction,” he added. Hendren said his breaking point for leaving the party occurred after the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol.
“For me, that day was the final straw. I asked myself what in the world I would tell my grandchildren when they asked one day what happened and what did I did about it? At the end of the day, I want to be able to tell my family, my friends, and the people I serve that I did everything I could to do right by them. I want each of you to know that, even though I’m making this decision, I haven’t changed,” he added.
In addition to his departure from the GOP, Hendren said he is forming a new political organization called Common Ground Arkansas. He tells Talk Business & Politics that he’s not sure what the legal structure of the group will be, but he hopes it will function to educate on public policy, provide a vehicle for Democrats and Republicans to work on issues, and help recruit and fund moderate political candidates.
“I’m founding Common Ground Arkansas, an organization that will work to find and support leaders willing to come together instead of continuing to push us apart. We want to encourage the trip across the aisle and make it easier to resist forces that continue to push both parties to extremes. We want to provide a home for those that don’t feel comfortable with either party while also working with reasoned and responsible leaders from both parties. You’ll be hearing more about Common Ground Arkansas in the coming days. But I want to invite other leaders-business, political, civic-and citizens to join us in this work. We want folks from both parties and-like me now-no party at all to join us. If you find yourself politically homeless, we’ve got a place for you,” he said.
Hendren has been mulling a bid for Arkansas governor in 2022. His exit from the Republican Party suggests he won’t run under that party’s banner. Hendren said he may run as an independent, but he may get behind another candidate, too.
“Right now, I’ve pushed that decision to the backburner because before anybody can win any serious race as an independent there has to be some sort of platform, some sort of foundation. I’m telling you there is a hunger for that in Arkansas,” he said.
Republican Party of Arkansas Chairwoman Jonelle Fulmer responded to Hendren's announcement with a statement:
Not once, to myself or my predecessor, has Jim Hendren ever picked up the phone to express concerns. He gladly received our substantial support over the years, including a mail piece from us last fall in his bid for re-election, where he ran on the Republican ticket a mere three months ago. The Republican Party has plenty of room for differing ideas. In fact, that is what has made us the majority party of Arkansas. Some of the concerns raised by Jim stem from a presidential primary five years ago, which calls into question his motivation now. This is nothing more than an attempt to garner press for a future independent candidacy for governor, knowing that he cannot compete with the conservative records of Attorney General Leslie Rutledge or Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Michael John Gray said in a statement:
A leader in the Republican Party of Arkansas has declared he is leaving a party that has become too extreme, too radical, and too dangerous. He said what most of us already knew, that today's Republican Party of Arkansas doesn't focus on the needs of Arkansans but rather on the divisive rhetoric and issues that divide our country. While we applaud Sen. Hendren for having the courage of his convictions, this information about today's Republican Party of Arkansas is not news to Arkansas Democrats. We have and will continue to support and lift up candidates whose sole focus has been on the communities in which they live and the state in which they love. These candidates have been focused on healthcare, strong support for public education, and opportunities for people to provide for their families regardless of their zip code. Sen. Hendren's exit highlights the mistakes that have been made by blindly voting for Republicans based on the divisive national rhetoric. Arkansas Democrats have been and always will be the party that puts the people of Arkansas first.
Sen. Hendren will be a guest on this weekend’s Talk Business & Politics television program.