Control Of Arkansas Legislature Is Likely To Come Down To A Handful Of Races

Oct 28, 2014

With all the talk of the Senate and Governor’s races in Arkansas it’s easy to overlook the 38 contested races for the state House of Representatives. Republicans hold a slim majority in the Arkansas House, in fact it’s the narrowest in the nation. One race in Little Rock, like the other 37, could become the deciding vote in the state legislature.

Jim Sorvillo has been stopping for coffee at Guillermo’s Gourmet Grounds in his state House district in west Little Rock for several years now.

“These guys right here you know what I’m saying, they’re trying to make the business go,” said Sorvillo.

Sorvillo is the Republican candidate for State House District 32. He’s a retired ad man, but he’s no stranger to politics. He served as a Justice of the Peace and he lost a 2012 race for state Senate.

His opponent is Democrat John Adams, an executive at First Federal Bank and former assistant state Attorney General to Dustin McDaniel. Coincidentally, he also chose to meet at Guillermo’s in the northeast corner of district 32

"A lot of folks ranging from working and middle class Arkansans up to some fairly affluent areas. It’s fairly diverse, we have a lot of people that have moved in from other parts of the country and other parts of the world,” said Adams.

The political repercussions of who wins this coffee house extend beyond its relatively well-to-do corner of Little Rock. The next legislature could be looking at state-wide access to pre-K, prison overcrowding, broadband internet for public schools and the future of the state’s new health insurance program that provides coverage to over 200,000 low-income Arkansans – the so-called private option.

Democrat Adams knows how he would vote when the private option comes up next year.

“Well, I would vote to reauthorize the private option. I think given that we’ve managed in Arkansas to nearly cut the rate of uninsured in half I think it’s the right way forward. Especially for central Arkansas, we have so many people in the healthcare industry that are going to benefit from being able to have their patients come in, come in with insurance,” said Adams.

Republican Sorvillo is not so certain.

Sorvillo: I know that there are amendments that are being talked about and until I can see all of that I can’t make a reasonable decision.

Kauffman: As the program is right now would you support it?

Sorvillo: I would have to say to you I do not support Obamacare.

Two recent high profile murders and several jail closings in Pulaski County due to overcrowding have both candidates agreeing that problems in the state’s parole and prison systems are a political priority. Of course they differ on what to do. Sorvillo wants more faith-based re-entry programs, and he’s not ready to vote for a new $100 million state prison. He says federal standards for detainment are too high.

“Our jail’s full okay, it’s been full. Many people think, ask ‘well why don’t we put tents up’ and so-forth like that. Your problem is that the federal government once again has a strong arm in here,” said Sorvillo.

Adams says he thinks alternative courts and forms of sentencing could be used more for non-violent and drug offenders. Like Sorvillo, he is also wary of a new state prison.

“I’m honestly not sure, given that I have seen the number of prisoners in state custody swing fairly wildly from a low prior to some of the reforms of the last few sessions to what we hope is a peak now. I’m going to want to see some normalizing of that number before I decide what the long-term trend is going to be,” said Adams.

These programs are all subject to the size of the state’s budget, and Democrats and Republicans will likely have different priorities on how to spend it. When Republicans gained control of the state legislature in 2012, it was by the narrowest of margins in the House. They now occupy 51 of its 100 seats.

Former Governor Mike Huckabee was the featured star at a get-out-the-vote rally earlier this month sponsored by the state GOP. The audience consisted of the party’s base and the message from Party Chair Doyle Webb was clear, that the state’s Republican Party needs to defend its slight majority in state government.

“Mike Huckabee is a great leader of this state, served this state well for over 10 years as governor, did great things even with a Democratic legislature. Imagine what Governor Huckabee could have accomplished if he’d had the legislature that we have today,” said Webb.

While much of the statewide campaigning this election has been tied to national politics and messaging condemning the Koch Brothers or President Obama, Greg Shufeldt, a political scientist with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, says state policy battles, even over marquee legislative issues, aren’t likely to filter down to local elections.

“I think with this election in particular having one of the most competitive U.S. Senate races in the country has really sucked the oxygen out of most races. Not just the state legislative races but the other statewide election offices. I feel like more people are paying attention to the senatorial race than the governor’s race,” said Shufeldt.

He said even though all 100 House seats are up for re-election, only a handful of seats are in play, with 66 districts un-contested by a major party opponent.

“Out of the 34 races where there’s a Democrat and a Republican only 14 were decided by less than 10 percent in 2012,” said Shufeldt.

There are also 10 contested races that have no incumbent including House District 32 in west Little Rock. That’s another factor that makes both party's think they have a chance to pick up some seats this election.

Arkansas’s state legislature convenes in January and its direction and leadership is up for grabs and likely to be shaped by just a handful of state House races.