Michael John Gray had lost weight. He said it was from being state Democratic Party chairman.
But then he ordered his Big Orange burger without a bread bun, but a lettuce one, and he wanted none of my fries. So, it was a low-carb thing.
Still, it’s true that the chairmanship of the state Democratic Party is currently the hardest job in Arkansas politics, especially considering the challenge the party encounters regarding the looming governor’s race.
Asa Hutchinson can’t be beaten, just to be blunt. He probably shouldn’t be beaten, to be blunter.
Any Democratic governor would suddenly be at destructive odds with — and on the losing side of — an extremist right-wing Republican Legislature that could override gubernatorial vetoes with simple majority votes.
But it’s a far-right Republican Legislature that Hutchinson, in his mature pragmatism and moderation and owing to the decades of credibility and respect he’s earned, has tamed effectively so far.
Still, Democrats can’t just let him have an unopposed walkover to re-election, for reasons of appearance and the law.
It would look altogether pitiful. And there’s a bona fide complication. A party’s automatic qualification for the ballot in the next election depends on getting 3 percent of the vote in the most recent governor’s election. Otherwise, the Democrats would be out there in 2020 with petitions, just like Libertarians or Greens or something.
Gray wanted to talk about that dilemma, and I was happy to let him, and to regale in the truth of everything he said.
It’s that this is no time for a Democratic “place-holder,” meaning some 60-something Clintonite with a little faded name identification who might stagger to 41 percent of the vote by incremental Republicanism dependent on the declining popularity of Donald Trump, a backlash against national Republican health-care policies and a bit of GOP disarray.
No one wants to lose, or starts out to lose. But there’s no disgrace in it. Bill Clinton lost his first race, and Dale Bumpers lost his. Hutchinson lost three races on a statewide basis— in 1986 at the age of 36 to Bumpers for the U.S. Senate, in 1990 to Winston Bryant for attorney general and in 2006 for governor to Mike Beebe.
The losses did not make Clinton any less a president or Bumpers any less a statesman or Asa any less a fourth-time statewide winner and entrenched as a governor the Democrats can’t beat.
As Gray noted, Bumpers was a complete unknown when he ran for governor, and Asa equally unknown when he ventured against Bumpers.
I told Gray the key factor: Bumpers’ miraculous rise was based on something real, not contrived. It was based on a generational spirit of reform and moderation and modernization after the machine politics of Orval Faubus and the ineffectively well-intended four years of Win Rockefeller.
Gray said yes, exactly.
What he was getting at was someone young and unknown but competent, advancing passionately his or her new issues connecting with Arkansas people living the daily challenges of Arkansas lives, and who — OK — might not win, but could always hope for a lightning strike while introducing himself or herself to Arkansas voters from Dermott to Siloam Springs.
He invoked a young but passionate and competent young Democrat previously unknown — a woman, maybe, because too much female talent is being wasted in this state — who would emerge from a small-town law office or hardware store or a college faculty or some new digital enterprise to run by saying that:
• Arkansas preschool kids are just as important as Oklahoma preschool kids, who have universal pre-K. It’s time in Arkansas.
• Arkansas rural teenagers are too important to be risked to nighttime driving on narrow two-lane highways with small shoulders.
• Our control of our own political decisions in Arkansas is too precious to be squandered to the cynical aims of secret out-of-state megadonors paying for attack ads to corrupt and decide our elections. It’s time to make them tell us who the heck they are.
• Cutting taxes is fine, but beware of a second term for Asa. Pressure will be great on his right flank to cut them more, and then more, possibly to the point of winding up like a nearly bankrupt Kansas, or a Louisiana with an LSU about to go belly-up, or Oklahoma, where Democrats have won three recent special legislative races because Republicans have cut taxes so deeply that education spending is down by 14 percent and some schools are having four-day weeks.
I told Gray he seemed to be describing a “new definition” of an Arkansas Democrat, one distanced from the national scene and the first, really, in the post-Clinton intra-state era, which, if it wasn’t here before, and I think it was, certainly arrived in 2016 when Hillary got 34 miserable percent against a madman.
I told Michael John Gray one more thing. It was that he was describing himself.
He’s a 41-year-old farmer from Augusta in east Arkansas, head of the county’s farm family of the year in 2014, with a wife and 3-year-old daughter, possessed of a law degree, connected to rural Arkansas people and possessed in two terms as a state representative of clear passion on some of those aforementioned issues.
Oh, no, he said, not that. He said it would be dismissed as a novelty if the state chairman ran as the party’s nominee for governor.
I thought it would be dismissed as pitiful, a sign that the party was so weak the state chairman had to come in grudgingly by default to present a nominal gubernatorial candidate.
But the young man is as close to what he described as anyone I know of.
Bear in mind, though, that we were talking about an unknown.
She’s out there. Or, less compellingly, he.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.