Who are the 135 legislators passing laws affecting current and future Arkansans?
Typically these days, they’re white male Baptist Republicans with college degrees, according to the Arkansas Legislature’s website and some internet searches. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Racial and gender categorizations cannot be avoided, so let’s cover them first. The Legislature is composed of 102 Republicans and 33 Democrats. Of the Republicans, 82 are white males and 20 are white females. Of the Democrats, 11 are African-American males, five are African-American females, and six are white females.
That leaves only 11 white male Democrats, which once would have described the entire Legislature. In the 100-member House of Representatives, there are only six.
Meanwhile, almost half of the state’s legislative Democrats are African-American, but there are no African-American Republican legislators.
Of all the things we don’t want in our politics, parties divided by race would be at the top of the list. Arkansas would be a better place if the Republican Party recruited African-American candidates after first giving them good reasons to be Republican. Democrats at the state level must relearn how to appeal to rural Arkansans everywhere rather than remain a party limited to Delta counties and a few urban pockets.
Both tasks will be challenging given the two parties’ leanings and behavior at the national level.
Broken down by occupation, the Legislature is a diverse group. I count 16 attorneys. Fourteen legislators have a background in education, including Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, the first African-American to graduate from Hendrix College. About 12 come from the medical field or from healthcare administration, including three doctors, two pharmacists, and one dentist.
Among the other occupations, a dozen legislators farm or raise cattle, or have done so. Rep. Marcus Richmond, R-Harvey, keeps bees. About nine are involved in real estate. Seven are engineers. Three are bankers, including freshman Sen. Ricky Hill, R-Cabot, who once was a professional bull rider. Who knew you could do both? At least three have a law enforcement background, and one is an auctioneer. Several legislators own businesses, but I’m not going to assign a number, because isn’t a farm a business?
I can’t give you an exact number of military veterans, so I’ll tell you about some of them. Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville, flew helicopters in Vietnam, was shot down twice and was awarded three Distinguished Flying Crosses and a Bronze Star. Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, is a former F-15 fighter pilot and is a colonel in the Arkansas Air National Guard. Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, was a Green Beret in Afghanistan. Rep. LeAnne Burch, D-Monticello, retired from the Army Reserves as a brigadier general after serving in Bosnia and Afghanistan.
There are others. Thank you all for your service.
Interestingly, somewhere around 109 of the 135 legislators have college degrees, assuming that those who say they attended a college graduated, and that those who don’t list a college didn’t. That’s surprisingly high considering only 22 percent of adult Arkansans have a degree.
The Legislature’s website also lists lawmakers’ religions. Fifty-seven are Baptists, 21 are Methodists, 10 are Church of Christ, seven are Catholic, and three are Assembly of God. The rest are a mix and include two Mormons.
Finally, here’s how they got here. Twenty-one of the 35 senators previously served in the House; no House member previously served in the Senate. Two legislators are former county judges, one is a former sheriff, and one is a former mayor. Thirteen served on a school board, 10 served on a city council, nine served on a quorum court, and two others served on both a school board and a quorum court.
So if you want to become a legislator, holding one of those offices might be your pathway.
Or you could ride bulls or keep bees.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.