Democrats Say Party Defectors Rewarded With Leadership Roles, GOP Says No

Jan 9, 2017

House Speaker Jeremy Gillam (R-Judsonia) speaking in the press gallery.
Credit Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

The 91st General Assembly is sworn in and there is some divide between Republican and Democratic leadership on whether or not members were rewarded with committee chairmanships for switching parties.

Speaker Jeremy Gillam (R-Judsonia) addressed the House chamber after taking the oath of office with an emphasis on civility and collaboration. He referenced Abraham Lincoln’s Team of Rivals, an ideologically diverse cabinet.

But Democrats in leadership roles, or heading committees, is a nearly vanquished proposition. But three Democrats who switched to the Republican Party since last session have been placed in chair positions on major committees. Rep. Joe Jett (R-Success) retained his spot on the House Revenue and Taxation Committee. Rep. Jeff Wardlaw (R-Hermitage) is chairing Public Health and Rep. Mike Holcomb (R-Pine Bluff) is chair of Public Transportation.

Asked by reporters if the switches in party allegiance had anything to do with the committee postings, Speaker Gillam said “absolutely not.”

HOLCOMB:

“If you look at it, Rep. Holcomb was the vice chair of Transportation last time, did an excellent job and worked very well with Prissy Hickerson (former Republican Rep. from Texarkana who did seek re-election), the previous chair. I consulted with her and several folks and they felt like he was a natural choice.”

JETT:

“The members all really bragged on what a good job he had done last time. Him switching parties with a decision he made with constituents and his family, it had nothing to do with any of the conversations with me at all.”

WARDLAW:

“He’s a fourth-term member on that committee, came in with me. He’s very knowledgeable on the subject matters that will be coming. I visited with a lot of members, getting kind of a sense of the chemistry on that committee and felt that was the best choice.”

Democratic Minority Leader Michael John Gray of Augusta had a different interpretation of the 

Democratic Minority Leader Michael John Gray of Augusta (left) speaking to reporters.
Credit Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

appointments of his former party members.

“It was not unexpected. A couple of them for the last year, we knew they were probably angling for a chairman position. There will probably be a lot said about that,” Gray told reporters. “Really it didn’t catch us off guard.”

Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature.