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OPINION | REX NELSON: A middle ground

by Rex Nelson | July 18, 2021 at 1:46 a.m.

Gwen Ford Faulkenberry of Ozark, an English teacher and mother of four whose guest columns appear on the pages of this newspaper, personifies what I consider to be the middle of the road in Arkansas.

She was born at Charleston--the town that produced Sen. Dale Bumpers--where her parents were teachers. The family later moved to Ozark. She went to college at the University of Central Arkansas and attended law school for a year at the University of Arkansas.

"I learned during that year that I didn't want to practice law," she says.

Her husband was a successful coach at Gentry. Her first professional writing experience came when she worked for DaySpring Cards Inc., a division of Hallmark in Siloam Springs that produces Christian and inspirational cards. The family later moved back to Ozark, where Faulkenberry's brother is school superintendent.

Faulkenberry operated a bed-and-breakfast inn for a time, obtained a master's degree from Arkansas Tech University at Russellville, and has been teaching English courses at Tech's Ozark campus for the past decade. She helps operate the family's 1,000-acre Triple F Ranch and has written a series of novels and devotional books.

A ranch. Married to a coach. A high school quarterback for a son. You can't get much more Arkansan than that.

"My family goes back nine generations in this state," she says. "I've been a Sunday School teacher at a Southern Baptist church. We've got two freezers full of deer meat at our house."

Two years ago, several people urged her to run for a seat in the Arkansas House of Representatives that covers parts of Franklin, Madison and Crawford counties.

"I'm not a political person, but I found out that I loved campaigning," Faulkenberry says of her unsuccessful 2020 campaign.

What she didn't see coming was being branded a "national Democrat."

"I'm pro-life," Faulkenberry says. "I wasn't pushing a national Democratic agenda. I was just wanting to serve my part of Arkansas. When the numbers started coming in last November, I was shattered. It was a rude awakening, and I'm still not over it."

Even with strong family ties to that part of west Arkansas, Faulkenberry received just 30 percent of the vote. Her sin? Having a "D" after her name on the ballot.

To be a Democrat is the kiss of death in rural Arkansas these days. Arkansas politics has become nationalized.

That dynamic, which has taken hold during the past dozen years, emboldened the legislators I call Know Nothings. They're the far-right Republicans who push cookie-cutter bills designed by out-of-state groups that have nothing to do with state government.

Know Nothings hijacked this year's legislative session. As a result, Arkansas saw more negative national media attention than at any time since the 1957 Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis. If a Gwen Faulkenberry--a high school football star's mom who has freezers filled with venison at home--can attract only 30 percent of the vote, where does that leave us as a state?

I ask myself that question during breakfast with state Sen. Jim Hendren and Misty Orpin at the Capital Bar & Grill in downtown Little Rock. It has been a week since my meeting with Faulkenberry.

Hendren, the nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson who earlier this year left the Republican Party and became an independent, now heads an organization known as Common Ground Arkansas. Orpin, who's well connected in booming northwest Arkansas and to the left of Hendren on political issues, is the organization's executive director.

At first, I had my doubts that Common Ground could gain traction. Those doubts were erased last month when the organization announced its board members. For starters, there's Arkansas legend Archie Schaffer III, Bumpers' nephew and former right-hand man who retired as executive vice president of Tyson Foods Inc.

Like Elvis, you only need to use his first name. When you say Archie in Arkansas, people know who you're talking about. If there are people who know more about Arkansas politics than Schaffer, I've yet to find them.

"I've been deeply involved in politics in Arkansas since the mid-1960s, and I firmly believe that something must be done to curtail the hyper-partisanship that's destroying our democracy and harming our state," he says. "I've committed myself to help Common Ground Arkansas be a part of the solution. Our strong, ideologically diverse board will work hard to make compromising and finding common ground the norm once again."

In addition to Schaffer, there are leading Arkansans such as LeAnne Burch of Monticello, a retired U.S. Army general; former House speaker Davy Carter of Jonesboro; Mayor George McGill of Fort Smith; well-known banker Sam Sicard of Fort Smith; and attorney Nate Steel of Little Rock.

Republicans and Democrats. Blacks and whites. Arkansans searching for a middle ground.

"I was outspoken earlier this year about the direction I saw the Republican Party going," Hendren says. "We had too many legislators who were simply telling people what they wanted to hear rather than working on substantive legislation."

When Hendren decided to leave the party, he asked Orpin to help him edit a news release.

"She told me it wasn't very good," Hendren says. "She helped me say what I wanted to say in a clearer and more thoughtful way."

Hendren sees Common Ground as a place for what he calls the "politically homeless"--Arkansans like Faulkenberry.

"It's about finding grown-up leaders who are problem solvers," Hendren says. "We must focus on the problems that face this state rather than just pandering to the far right. My feelings solidified as I went through this year's legislative session and saw just how bad it was. We need the 2023 regular session to be far different. We're going to have to replace those who keep pushing stuff simply for political gain."

Common Ground isn't a third party. It likely will end up supporting mostly candidates who take on incumbents in Republican primaries next year.

With all due respect to people such as Hendren and Schaffer, the secret to Common Ground's success might wind up being energetic Orpin. She grew up at Hector in the Ozark Mountains north of Russellville.

"What I consider Arkansas traditional values resonate with me," she says. "I recognize that Jim is one of those people uniquely positioned to make a difference in this state. He and I are different ideologically, but we love Arkansas and have found common ground."

In an interview earlier this year with the Arkansas Times, Orpin said: "I'm not interested in doing anything that's not authentic, that's not aimed at real Arkansans. I believe in real people. I don't come from fancy people. I'm a fifth-generation Arkansan who cares . . . about this place where I live. My roots are so deep here. By God, with all of its faults, I'm proud of my state. I want to have more to be proud of."

Orpin was the regional trails coordinator for the Northwest Arkansas Council in 2013-14, then served from 2015-17 as executive director of the Downtown Springdale Alliance. After spending three years working in communications and strategic planning for the University of Arkansas, she did marketing work for downtown Springdale's Black Apple, which makes hard cider. It was Schaffer who introduced me to that business.

In March 2020, Orpin started in an effort to understand how the pandemic was affecting the state. She launched it from a laptop and soon received statewide acclaim for number crunching and analysis that surpassed anything state government was doing. The site's Twitter feed had more than 11,000 followers.

In August, Orpin handed that project off to the UA School of Journalism and Strategic Media. Now, she's leading a group of Arkansas' top business and political leaders in a search for middle ground. Those of us who care about the future of this state wish them luck.

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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