by Dwain Hebda
To borrow from Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece The Godfather, Michael John Gray, chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, believes in America.
Despite the rancor that currently rules the political landscape, despite the setbacks his own party has endured at the state’s polling places and the prospect of another red-dawned election year, Gray still believes. It’s a belief that runs simple and deep and basic in a climate that is anything but.
“Democrats fight for the things you’re supposed to fight for. They work for the things they’re supposed to work for,” he says. “I believe the Democrats are on the right side of, dare I say, every issue. At the end of the day we’re for people and anytime you’re on the side for people you’re on the right side of the issues.”
Nevertheless, it’s been nearly a decade since Republicans began the once-thought-impossible task of flipping Deep South states where Democrats held sway for generations. In Arkansas, decisive GOP election cycles in 2012 and 2014 put Arkansas among the southern states churning out majorities in Congress and in the statehouse. That momentum has continued and, at the state level includes a super majority in the House, majority in the Senate, and the offices of governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state, among others.
Gray had a ringside seat to this ideological churn, having run for and won a seat in Arkansas’ state House of Representatives in 2014. He was something of a unicorn – a first-timer from the sticks of Augusta and one of seven freshman Democrat representatives – yet promising enough to be elected minority leader of the Democratic House Caucus. By the time he was voted out, narrowly in 2018, the state party had come calling.
Investing in the future of the Democrats and the long road back to relevance was a job not many wanted. But Gray wasn’t about to fade into the background so easily.
“My first goal (as chairman) was to say, ‘We can all bemoan that we don’t have a congressman or a governor or a senator, but we do have some damn good people in the legislature and I want the party to promote them.’ And we did a really good job of that,” he says.
“The next step is, first, we have to get over the hangover of hoping that Bill Clinton and Mike Beebe are going to walk back through that door, because they’re not and, second, embrace the dynamic leaders that we do have.”
In between elections, Gray’s efforts and those of the party machine are to explain and promote to ordinary Arkansans the issues that affect them most deeply – minimum wage, health care reform, public education. In so doing, it’s hoped, the electorate will pressure those in power to legislate accordingly through a sort of Caucus of the Common Man. It doesn’t work that neatly, of course, and represents a lot of heavy lifting in an era where careers are made and broken with a few keystrokes.
“When the Democratic majority was there you didn’t have to fight those battles,” Gray says. “Now you’ve got to fight them on Main Street in every one of these small towns or you’re going to get people elected based on an ideology that’s being branded on Facebook and you’re not necessarily going to get the people that are interested in Main Street, they’re more interested in advancing a political party.”
“Well, our party wants to be there, wants to have candidates, we want to be supportive, but our party is not just a building in Little Rock. The party is an idea. It’s everyone and if you’re fighting for those issues then there’s a responsibility there that everyone has to accept.”
Inspiring the next generation of Democratic activists is no less tricky, Gray says. Like many long-standing institutions, political parties have had to adjust to how the younger generation thinks, how they communicate and what they value.
“I think anybody worth their salt in politics can walk into a room and know what issues to talk about to get the applause line or get the engagement, but I think we’ve failed on connecting the dots for my generation, and definitely the younger generation,” he says.
“I’m encouraged by what we see locally and nationally as far as engagement of the younger generation. But I think they’re quickly going to become disillusioned as we all do through the process because they see the good ideas, they see things that should work, and they’re not necessarily seeing it be successful when it comes to the outcomes.”
Gray says a party built on ideals and real-world issues will always stay in the fight and that’s what he’s trying to accomplish in his role as chairman. His is not an effort devoid of critics but few things in politics are.
“The party can no longer just be the clearinghouse for the governor’s campaign or a senator’s campaign. It can also no longer just be the place that people that were working on campaigns get a job,” he says, bluntly.
“It’s got to be an organization whose mission is to help facilitate, not overlook. That’s a hard ship to turn. When you’re trying to change a 150-year culture, it takes more than a couple years to do it. You hire people that maybe weren’t the ‘in’ people. You stub your toe trying to put the right people in those positions. You build teams. We’re working towards that.”
“You can poll a lot of Democratic party members that think I haven’t done that fast enough and I’d agree with them, but that’s what’s got to be done. My father used to say all the time you don’t get a pat on the back for doing the right thing.”
Image courtesy of Democratic Party of Arkansas