Sen. Jim Hendren, I-Gravette, has finished his first legislative session as the state’s only independent legislator, so now he can focus on the organization he’s building, Common Ground Arkansas – and on deciding whether to run for governor.
Hendren made national headlines when he announced Feb. 18 that he was leaving the Republican Party to become an independent. He cited the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6 as a motivation. He also said he was starting Common Ground Arkansas to encourage collaborative, problem-solving politics.
The announcement was especially notable because Hendren previously had been Senate president pro tempore, meaning he was the Republican leader of a Republican Senate, and because he’s the nephew of Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
It also was notable because he made the announcement in the middle of a legislative session, when he had to work with Republicans to pass legislation.
Hendren said he was still able to serve as a legislator. He said he passed all the bills he presented to the full Senate, the first 35-0.
But he obviously had ruffled some feathers. Things got ugly when Hendren presented his hate crimes bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee April 7. Everyone knew it was going to fail. Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, made a rare “do not pass” motion, which Hendren said was hateful and petty. Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Ozark, then gave Hendren a tongue-lashing where he accused him of self-promotion.
Hendren said most of his relationships were fine. He said serving as an independent was liberating, but he was disappointed in the session overall. He said bills flew out of that particular committee that typically would be stopped by attorney-legislators because of their unconstitutionality. One that was eventually vetoed by Hutchinson would have declared the state free from certain federal gun laws while fining local law enforcers if they worked with the feds. Another version instead was passed.
Meanwhile, Hendren has been busy with his other gig, Common Ground Arkansas. He will announce his board of directors May 27. The one name that has surfaced is Davy Carter, a former Republican speaker of the House. The group has hired an executive director, Misty Orpin, who is known for creating Arkansascovid.com, an online source of information on COVID-19, after she became frustrated with the numbers the Department of Health was releasing. In April, Common Ground produced a four-minute video, “Welcome to the movement.”
Hendren said his group does have supporters and that “hundreds and hundreds of donors” have given money online. Because the group is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, it doesn’t have to disclose who its donors are.
As for the future, Hendren said he has met with “half a dozen” potential candidates. Common Ground will support solution-minded independents, Republicans and Democrats based on data modeling showing which ones can be competitive. As structured now, it can’t financially support candidates, but eventually there could be a structure allowing the movement to do so.
Hendren had been mentioned as a potential candidate for governor long before he became an independent. I asked him the obligatory question about that race, which at the moment is being dominated by Sarah Huckabee Sanders. President Trump’s former press secretary raised more than $4.8 million in the first two months of her campaign. It’s hard to see how she loses.
Hendren said he’s not ruling out running because he believes Arkansans still support the pragmatic leadership of people like his Uncle Asa and former Gov. Mike Beebe.
“I’m not going to waste time and effort on something that all the facts tell me is a futile effort, but I don’t have all the facts, and the facts are changing day by day,” he said.
If he does run for governor, it would be a long-shot candidacy that might lay the groundwork for another independent candidate to win someday.
If he doesn’t run, he’ll focus on building his organization. He said one of his children told him, “Forget running for governor. Focus on Common Ground. It’s a bigger deal.”
Will it be? We’ll see. At the moment, Hendren is still the only legislator with an “I” by his name.
It would be nice if there were more, but as long as enough legislators are independent-minded, that’s good enough.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist published in 16 outlets in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.