Rep. Jett Switches To GOP; Democrats Lose Lone Committee Majority

File photo of Rep. Joe Jett during an appearance on the Talk Business & Politics television program in May 2015.
Credit Talk Business & Politics

Rep. Joe Jett of Success, who has been chairman of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, announced Friday he is switching from the Democratic to the Republican Party, meaning the only legislative committee where Democrats had a majority will become a 50-50 split.

Jett becomes the third Democrat to switch parties since the election, following Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, and Rep. David Hillman, R-Almyra. The move gives Republicans a 76-24 majority in the House.

Jett’s departure also evens the partisan split on the Revenue and Taxation Committee. Despite their small numbers, Democrats had engineered an 11-9 majority when committees were chosen in separate rooms divided by congressional district Nov. 10. With Jett’s party switch, the partisan split is now 10-10.

Jett has been chairman of that committee when it was majority Republican despite being a Democrat. He said in an interview he had not been promised by Speaker of the House Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, that he would continue serving as chairman, that the two had made a point of not having that discussion, and that Gillam had not made other promises. He said he hopes to remain as chairman of the committee.

Jett, who represents District 56 in northeast Arkansas along the Missouri border, was re-elected without opposition to his third term in November. He said he had been considering the switch for up to a year and made up his mind not after the election but as the 2017 legislative session was nearing. He made the decision after talking to people in his district, including friends in the coffee shop, a cotton farmer in Piggott, and others.

“I just found overwhelming support for this. … I found the more I talked to people, the more I had people really, really encouraging me to go do this,” he said. “And then, it was just, you get to a point to where you say, ‘OK, it’s time.’ I know people are saying I did it right after the election and all that. Well, I’ll just tell you there’s really no good time to do this.”

He said the switches by Wardlaw and Hillman “had nothing to do” with his decision and that no promises had been made by the governor’s office or the Republican Party. In fact, he said he doesn’t recall ever having a conversation about anything with Doyle Webb, Republican Party of Arkansas chairman.

He said he was not switching because of the Republicans’ majority, saying instead that the move would enable him to better represent his constituents. He pointedly declined to criticize the Democratic Party, saying the switch was “probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made in my entire life.”

“I have very, very dear friends in the Democratic Party,” he said. “The reason why we’re dropping this at 4 o’clock today is because I’ve got to get home and I’ve got to drive to my father-in-law’s house and explain to an 82-year-old man that is a yellow-dog Democrat, why I’m doing this. So I am not going to say anything negative or bad about the Democratic Party.”

Jett said he had told House Minority Leader Michael John Gray, D-Augusta, last week that he was seriously considering switching, and he was confirming the switch with Gray Friday afternoon. He said he had texted Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s staff that the announcement was coming and was planning on sending another text as it neared.

He declined to say how he voted in the presidential election but said he is “fully prepared” to support President-elect Donald Trump, Hutchinson and the party’s candidates.

Arkansas House Democratic Leader Michael John Gray of August released this statement after Jett announced his switch: “As we approach the legislative session the Arkansas House Democratic Caucus is focused on early childhood education, government accountability, tax relief for Arkansas’s working class, and a better quality of life for all Arkansans. This work is bigger than any one member and while the decision by Representative Jett is discouraging it will not distract us from the work at hand. We look forward to visiting with voters of District 56 as we recruit a Democratic candidate to run against Representative Jett or whomever the 2018 Republican nominee may be.”