The Little Rock New Party
By JASON MURPHY
Special to The Progressive Populist
Last fall, as the Clintons and their donors lavishly celebrated their election
night victory at the Old Statehouse in Little Rock, another group -- less
wealthy but clearly more important in the long run -- partied across town
at a small local watering hole. A campaign finance reform initiative supported
by the chapter swept the state by a two-to-one margin, surprising politicians
and fat cats alike. And to the even greater astonishment of local big money
politicians, the LRNP won its first at-large seat on the Little Rock City
The Little Rock New Party has put three members on the City Board of Directors,
three more on the School Board, and has solo representatives on the County
Quorum Court (county board) and in the state Legislature. In a city long
controlled by developers and wealthy interests, and long divided along racial
lines, the New Party is building a multi-racial labor- and community-based
political organization that is electing its own members to office and holding
them accountable to a progressive program. In doing so, it's demonstrating
how an independent political group can build political power for working
and minority people at the local level.
In talking to New Party leaders in Little Rock, four main reasons for the
success of the chapter emerge: having a multi-racial and active membership
base; building a strong labor-community coalition; developing a set of issues
that build popular support; and recruiting candidates from within the party's
Building the Base: Numbers = Power
THE LITTLE ROCK New Party has long understood that building a strong
grassroots membership base is critical on a number of levels. Without corporate
donors or wealthy supporters, membership dues are needed to finance the
party's organizing. Members hit the streets, knock on doors and work the
phones to elect fellow members to office. They also provide the grassroots
base to hold those elected officials accountable and advance a progressive
Little Rock New Party co-chair Johnnie Pugh says, "The key to our success
has been committed people. Since we don't have a lot of money, we've had
to get our people to get out there and knock on doors and carry our message
across the city."
New Party candidates, often low-income residents, usually running for office
for the first time, can't rely on existing party machines or expensive ads
and direct mail campaigns. In Little Rock, and around the country, the New
Party elects candidates through building strong "people's machines."
For example, New Party organizers and interns have been sweating it out
under the sun this summer to build an organizing committee in Little Rock
Wards 1 and 2 -- target districts for city council races in 1998. The party
has recruited more than 80 members -- mostly poor and minority residents
-- in these wards over the last two months.
In a city long divided along racial lines, the New Party has been particularly
careful to build a multi-racial organization. About a third of the New Party
members are white; two-thirds are African-American.
"The New Party has become perhaps the one place in the city where blacks
and whites both feel comfortable. That's almost unheard of in Arkansas politics,"
said party co-chair Jim Lynch, the chair of the city's Racial and Cultural
A Popular Program For Working People
KEY TO THE NEW PARTY'S success over the last three years has been
developing a progressive agenda that appeals to the party's base.
"Our most successful issue has definitely been campaign finance. You
can talk to people about honesty and integrity and they know what they want,"
says Lynch. "We're also calling attention to some of the wasteful policies
our city has been promoting. The developers are trying to expand the city
westward. What's happening is that as a new part of the city gets built,
we're abandoning infrastructure in the older city, only to have to pay for
it again out west. It's draining essential resources and shifting them to
the new, wealthier neighborhoods."
Lynch continues, "We discovered that City Board members had been accepting
large donations from developers and then voting for their projects. Our
two City Board candidates called for a rule banning Board members from accepting
campaign donations until July of the year they were running for re-election.
And two of the leading recipients of developer money went down in defeat,
one to our candidate in a city-wide race. When we first came to the City
Board with this proposal, they sneered. Now the biggest sneerers are gone,
and the board adopted our reforms as soon as they could."
The New Party also played a key role, along with Arkansas ACORN, in supporting
a successful statewide initiative for campaign reform. The measure, which
received more votes in 1996 than hometown kid Bill Clinton, established
low contribution limits ($300 for statewide candidates; $100 for local),
tightened disclosure and reporting requirements, and provides a tax credit
for small contributors.
More recently, the New Party has led a series of issue campaigns to hold
its elected officials accountable to a progressive agenda. This winter it
won a City Board ordinance that requires the police chief to report regularly
in public on the use of force and hiring and promotion practices in the
Little Rock New Party elected City Board members have also been successful
in protecting funding for bus service (largely used by low-income residents)
and youth intervention programs. Most recently, the party held a well-attended
meeting to develop an education platform. At the top of the list: school
safety and discipline, shifting resources into schools in low-income areas,
and exploring community-run charter schools.
The elected officials
UNLIKE THE MAJOR PARTIES, the Little Rock New Party hasn't just let
candidates come to them. They go out and actively recruit neighborhood leaders
to run for office.
"We got started by talking about getting grassroots people into the
political system. I got involved because there are people I know who are
good people and who would be good in office, but don't have the money to
run," says chapter co-chair Johnnie Pugh, also the president of Arkansas
"We felt we needed to elect people who would really represent us. If
you've never had to eat pinto beans and bread, you don't know what it's
about. We want people in office who know what it's about and know what our
communities really need."
In 1994, the New Party elected two members to the City Board. It was the
first time that activists from low to moderate income communities had been
elected to the board.
"In the twenty-five years of at-large elections, something like two-thirds
of the elected officials had come from just three affluent neighborhoods."
says Lynch. "When we elected Gloria [Wilson] and Willie [Hinton], that
really shook up the establishment."
Since then, the New Party has elected a third member to the City Board,
two members on the school board and solo representatives to the county board
and the state House.
While still small, and certainly not yet powerful, the Little Rock New Party
has demonstrated that it is possible to build a multi-racial, class based
organization that can articulate a progressive agenda, elect grassroots
candidates to office, and begin to pass legislation benefiting working people.
Jason Murphy is an community organizer with Arkansas ACORN, and a member
of the Little Rock New Party.
For more information on the New Party, call 1-800-200-1294, email firstname.lastname@example.org,
or check out the web site at http://www.newparty.org.
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