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Michael John Gray is a smart young man and something of an old soul.

He's a farmer in Augusta with a law degree on the side. He is steeped in the lost Arkansas Democratic tradition of championing both rural poor people and the farmers of his native eastern Arkansas.

It was an FDR-to-Mike Beebe thing, and it was a good run.


Gray represents his area in the state House, where's he's led the pitiable minority that is the Democratic caucus. Since June, he's been the state Democratic Party chairman, trying not to resuscitate the party as much as to construct a foundation upon which it might be resuscitated eventually.

In a joint appearance last week with Republican chairman Doyle Webb before the Northeast Arkansas Political Animals Club, Gray tried to thread the needle that Bill Clinton and Beebe managed to thread until Barack Obama's presidency and the digital age's nationalization of Arkansas politics made continued threading nigh unto impossible.

Gray lamented that his national party leaders in Washington shut down the government. But he blamed the error on failure to build a public case rather than on the actual issue, which was legal status for the Dreamer immigrants.

Such needle-threading is the baneful challenge for any Southern Democrat trying to reconnect with white rural people while holding on to the identity-politics elements of the modern Democratic coalition.

It is so tricky that I thought I caught Gray contradicting himself during our phone visit this week. He said you must have a strong and clear message before you shut down the government. He also said that the problem is that people resent that the politicians shut down the government ever.

He didn't want to say the Dreamers were unworthy of a shutdown. And he didn't want to say he supported even the concept of leveraging a shutdown.

It's the old Clinton Straddle, except the gap being straddled has widened to the point that modern-day attempts result in pulled muscles and ripped britches.

So, I wondered what Gray would say if I simply asked him: Is the current national Democratic Party as led by Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi an impairment on a young Arkansas Democrat trying to reconnect the party with his rural Arkansas neighbors?

"Yes."

That was clear enough.

"It's the academic national elitism, for lack of a better word off the top of my head," he said. "There's probably a better way to put it. It's the attitude that people down here don't know any better and therefore can't be expected to be as advanced as the people in New York and California. I've not had one national Democrat call me to ask, 'How's this going to affect y'all down there?'''

He said no one in the Democratic congressional leadership understood what West Virginia's last standing Democrat, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, understood. It was that West Virginians looked on the shutdown not as a valiant fight for Dreamers but as an absurd affront to military families on their pay.

Manchin reportedly told Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on the Monday after the weekend shutdown that he could either end the shutdown or find another Senate candidate in West Virginia.

I asked Gray if he believed the current national Democratic Party had blown off Arkansas. He said it would seem so--that the electoral strategy for electing a Democratic president assumed Arkansas' electors were lost indefinitely.

In fact, the calculus is such that any Democratic national outreach to white rural people in the South might disturb the identity-politics coalition of minorities, gays, liberal urbanites and suburban women.

What, then, is this young man and old soul to do?

Gray said he and others were formulating a statement of Arkansas Democratic objectives--wider and better roads, protection of Medicaid expansion to keep quality hospitals open, school reform, expanded early childhood education, local entrepreneurial training, and assistance for depressed towns, among other things.

"Those are not Democratic needs," Gray said. "They're Arkansas needs. I'm just trying to get the message spread that the Democrats care about them and have a plan."

Here's what the young man is attempting, in my view and by my paraphrase: He wants white rural voters in Arkansas to look past their religious views on abortion or gay marriage, and away from debacles in Washington, and begin to think first about whether they and their kids and their parents need wider roads and better nearby hospitals and local enterprises opening behind abandoned storefronts on Main Street.

A tradition-steeped young farmer and old soul seems better positioned than most to squeeze into what may be a kamikaze cockpit.

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John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 02/01/2018

Print Headline: Old soul, new message

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