Tennille back at state Democrat helm

Weeks after an exhausted farewell, he’s the only nominee

Grant Tennille waves to his fellow Democrats after being elected as the new chair of the Democratic Party of Arkansas during the party meeting Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023 at Shorter College in North Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Less than two months after declaring himself exhausted in what was supposed to be his farewell address, Grant Tennille was reelected on Saturday to a four-year term as chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas.

Tennille, 54, was the only candidate nominated for party chair and was elected by acclamation of the same officials he chastised in December for not supporting the party financially. Dan Whitfield of Bella Vista campaigned for the job but was not nominated by a committee member.

Despite losses in November's midterm election, Democrats credited Tennille with helping the party get out of debt after it maxed out credit cards and mortgaged its headquarters.

"I'm standing here today, incredibly proud of everything we accomplished together in a very short period of time," Tennille said. "But from this day forward, all of that is in the past. The road to 2024 begins now."

Tennille reported at the December meeting that the party was no longer in debt. He said at Saturday's meeting, at Shorter College in North Little Rock, that it had just $3,500 left to return to donors for mishandling funds. Tennille also said the party has come to a not-yet-disclosed settlement with the Federal Election Commission for previous violations.

Party officials blame their woes on a lack of money. Given the party's collapse in recent years, fewer have wanted to donate to what is perceived to be a losing effort, Tennille said. Christina Mullinax, the party's finance director, said 42.9% of committee members donated monthly, an increase from the 27% reported at the last meeting in December.

Originally from Florida, Tennille is a former staff member of Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe and Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee. He also was an unpaid adviser to Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. Democrats credit Tennille for having stabilized the party since taking over in October 2021.

Tennille took over the remainder of Michael John Gray's term after Gray left to become executive director of a super political action committee, Liberty and Justice for Arkansas.

"I think he has proven he has the capability to lead the party," said Kelly Grappe, a committee member from White County, who praised Tennille's financial acumen.

Tennille, who is unpaid, said he fixed toilets himself at the party's headquarters rather than spend money to hire a plumber. In December, Tennille said he had to step down, citing a decline in mental and physical health after just 14 months as the party's chair. Former state Sens. Joyce Elliott and Keith Ingram persuaded Tennille to run for another term, saying he could do the job with a better work-life balance, he said.

"Two months ago, I was as exhausted as I have ever been in my life," Tennille said. "I felt beaten up and beaten down – I was ready for a break. Fortunately, for all of us, we have good friends who spent time talking to me and working with me."

For a party that ruled Arkansas for the better part of 150 years, Democrats are the furthest from power they've been since Reconstruction. Just 18 out of 100 seats in the state House of Representatives and six out of 35 in the Senate belong to Democrats. There are no Democratic constitutional officers, nor members of the state's congressional delegation.

In a state where Democrats held the governor's mansion and state Legislature just 12 years ago, it's become more common for Republican candidates to run unopposed in general election races or face only a Libertarian challenger.

"We've got to raise money, but we've got to get [more] voter engagement," said Jannie Cotton, who was elected the party's vice chair Saturday.

Tennille said the electoral goals for 2024 were to crack the Republican super-majority in one chamber in the state Legislature and to flip one or two of the state's four seats in Congress.

He took aim at Republicans in the General Assembly who have sponsored bills aimed at regulating drag shows and school bathrooms.

After winning election to another term, Tennille told committee members the party needs to focus on turning out the "hundreds of thousands of Arkansans who don't vote," rather than try to win over those who have "drunk from the well of Republican hate and divisiveness."

"Anyone who supports this legislative agenda is too far gone to be redeemed by mortals," Tennille said.

Tennille said the party's revenue was $700,000 in 2022, and that he will present a budget of between $1.2 million and $1.5 million for 2023. He laid out goals for the coming term: to refurbish the party's headquarters, open a field office in Northwest Arkansas, hire two full-time organizers and redesign the party's website.

"While we are the minority party right now, we also know, especially I who have been a minority all my life, we're just going to have to work harder, smarter and longer," said state Sen. Linda Chesterfield of Little Rock.

The other Democratic Party officers elected at Saturday's meeting included:

• Dustin Parsons of Benton as vice chair of county committees.

• Gracie Ziegler of Fayetteville as vice chair of auxiliaries.

• Darlene "Goldi" Gaines of North Little Rock as treasurer.

• Joshua Price of Maumelle as secretary.