by Dwain Hebda
The Arkansas Republican Women Caucus may have just one legislative session under its belt, but its already enjoyed enviable success that suggests the body will be a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future.
The 21-member caucus unveiled a sweeping Dream B.I.G. Arkansas initiative last session and with it, five new pieces of legislation that tackled literacy, juvenile justice reform, technology, entrepreneurship and health care issues. Not a bad first showing, said Rep. Carol Dalby of Texarkana.
“We delivered on all those ideas, which I’m very proud of,” she says. “Not only is the Republican Women’s Caucus very proud of it, I think the legislature as a whole is proud of it because it was good work. It was good for everybody.”
Governor Asa Hutchinson signed the package of bills March 6, taking the occasion to note that all five measures were passed without a single dissenting vote. Sen. Missy Irvin of Mountain View proudly reiterated that fact as proof that the legislation was sound enough to transcend party loyalties.
“I think all of our policies really cut through all of that identity politics. That’s a good thing,” she says. “That’s one of those things I think doesn’t get talked about enough is the problems we’re looking at trying to solve, we wanted to make sure that we didn’t look at any of that [partisanship]. We were just trying to make the best policies that are going to move our state forward and be competitive.”
The new laws include a measure that requires all juvenile courts in the state to use universal risk assessment to help determine the most appropriate detention option for delinquent youth, improves literacy education standards and designates Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute at UAMS a national research center. There are also new laws that improve communities’ ability to build broadband infrastructure and encourages childcare entrepreneurship, especially in underserved and rural areas.
Dalby says besides the quality of the bills themselves, the fact that they were introduced and advanced by the caucus showed the growing clout women legislators have in the Arkansas legislature.
“It’s a big deal. It’s never happened in Arkansas. We’ve never had this many women elected. So it was important to us to speak as one voice because it was so unique,” she says. “Obviously if we’re 50 percent of the population or more, we have a spot at the table and it’s important that we have a group that can meet together and discuss those big ideas.”
“If you look at the things that we proposed and passed in the legislature this last session, they’re not women’s issues solely. They were issues that affected everybody in our state. We want to focus and make change that impacts everybody and helps everybody as we move our state forward.”
Asked if she was concerned about the lack of diversity in the caucus – there are no members of African American, Hispanic or Asian descent – Irvin cautioned against judging on mere appearances.
“It’s easy to make an assumption when you see someone and their skin color and not know what type of a dynamic family they may have,” she said. “We have people who are serving who have a racially diverse family in their personal life that the public doesn’t know. I think it’s really difficult to make assumptions based on the appearance of a person.”
“The same goes for our caucus of Republican women. I don’t think it’s a good thing to make an assumption based on the fact that we’re all white women. Our policies clearly don’t see color. They don’t discriminate between a man and a woman or anybody because of their color.”
Irvin instead stressed the collective experience of the caucus as well as the cooperative spirit of the members.
“It’s pretty significant that we have 21 Republican women that are elected and serving. As I look at these women, they’re inspiring, they wear all these different hats, they are so dynamic. They are businesswomen, they are lawyers. They’re advocates for all different kinds of things. They’re coaches for their kids’ teams,” she says.
“If you add up all the public service that we have done in every capacity – that’s municipal offices, county offices, school board, the judicial system – it’s pretty significant, 144 years of public service, combined.”
Dalby agreed, saying the credit for the measures passed is secondary to the far-reaching benefits they provide for Arkansans statewide.
“I think the people in the four corners of the state are really going to see some real tangible benefits from these pieces of legislation. Whether they realize it comes from the Women’s Caucus or not, that’s okay,” she says. “At the end of the day, I just want everybody’s life to be better.”
Irvin, while not venturing a prediction on what the caucus will specifically tackle next, said the mere presence of the group serves a purpose for the next generation.
“I want young girls to look at us and see what they can do with their lives to make them successful,” she says. “Really use our megaphones to say these are the things that we’ve learned, and we want to pass them down to you so that you can become successful in your life.”