A happy medium
Gwen Ford Faulkenberry of Ozark, an English teacher and mother of four whose guest columns appear in the pages of this journal, personifies what I consider to be the middle of the road in Arkansas.
She was born in Charleston – the city that produced Senator Dale Bumpers – where her parents were teachers. The family then moved to Ozark. She attended college at the University of Central Arkansas and attended law school for a year at the University of Arkansas.
“I learned during this year that I didn’t want to practice law,” she says.
Her husband was a successful trainer at Gentry. Her first professional writing experience came when she worked for DaySpring Cards Inc., a division of Hallmark in Siloam Springs that produces Christian and inspirational cards. The family then returned to Ozark, where Faulkenberry’s brother is the principal of the school.
Faulkenberry operated a bed and breakfast for a time, earned a master’s degree from Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, and taught English classes at Tech’s Ozark campus for the past decade. She helps operate the family’s 1,000-acre Triple F Ranch and has written a series of novels and devotional books.
A ranch. Married to a trainer. A high school quarterback for a son. You can’t get much more from Arkansan than this.
“My family goes back nine generations in this condition,” she says. “I was a Sunday school teacher at a Southern Baptist church. We have two freezers full of deer meat in our house.”
Two years ago, several people urged her to run for a seat in the Arkansas House of Representatives which covers parts of Franklin, Madison and Crawford counties.
“I’m not a political person, but I found that I loved campaigning,” Faulkenberry said of his unsuccessful 2020 campaign.
What she did not see coming was to be called a “national democrat”.
“I’m pro-life,” says Faulkenberry. “I wasn’t defending a national Democratic agenda. I just wanted to serve my part of Arkansas. When the numbers started coming in last November, I was broken. It was a rude wake-up call, and I didn’t. still not finished. “
Even with close family ties to this part of western Arkansas, Faulkenberry only received 30 percent of the vote. His sin? Have a “D” after his name on the ballot.
Being a Democrat is the kiss of death in rural Arkansas these days. Arkansas politics nationalized.
This dynamic, which has developed over the past twelve years, has emboldened lawmakers I call Know Nothings. It is the far-right Republicans pushing cookie-cutter bills designed by non-state groups that have nothing to do with state government.
Know Nothings hijacked this year’s legislative session. As a result, Arkansas has seen more negative national media attention than at any time since the 1957 desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School. If a Gwen Faulkenberry – the mother of a high school football star who has freezers filled with game in the house – can only get 30 percent of the vote, where does that leave us as a state?
I ask myself this question over breakfast with State Senator Jim Hendren and Misty Orpin at Capital Bar & Grill in downtown Little Rock. It’s been a week since I met Faulkenberry.
Hendren, the nephew of Governor Asa Hutchinson who earlier this year left the Republican Party and became independent, now heads an organization known as Common Ground Arkansas. Orpin, who is well connected to booming northwest Arkansas and to Hendren’s left on political issues, is the organization’s executive director.
At first I doubted Common Ground could gain ground. Those doubts were erased last month when the organization announced the members of its board of directors. For starters, there’s Arkansas legend Archie Schaffer III, nephew of Bumpers and former right-hand man who retired as executive vice president of Tyson Foods Inc.
Like Elvis, just use his first name. When you say Archie in Arkansas, people know who you’re talking about. If there are people who know more about Arkansas politics than Schaffer, I haven’t found them yet.
“I have been deeply involved in politics in Arkansas since the mid-1960s, and I firmly believe that something must be done to reduce the hyper-partisanship that destroys our democracy and harms our state,” he said. declared. “I am committed to helping Common Ground Arkansas be part of the solution. Our strong and ideologically diverse board of directors will work hard to make compromise and finding common ground once again the norm.”
In addition to Schaffer, there are prominent Arkansans such as LeAnne Burch of Monticello, a retired US Army general; former Speaker of the House Davy Carter of Jonesboro; Mayor George McGill of Fort Smith; well-known banker Sam Sicard of Fort Smith; and lawyer Nate Steel of Little Rock.
Republicans and Democrats. Black and white. The Arkansans in search of a happy medium.
“I was frank earlier this year about where I saw the Republican Party take,” Hendren said. “We had too many lawmakers just telling people what they wanted to hear rather than working on substantive legislation.”
When Hendren decided to quit the party, he asked Orpin to help him edit a press release.
“She told me it wasn’t very good,” says Hendren. “She helped me say what I wanted to say in a clearer and more thoughtful way.”
Hendren sees Common Ground as a place for what he calls the “political homeless” – Arkansans like Faulkenberry.
“It’s about finding adult leaders who solve problems,” says Hendren. “We need to focus on the issues this state faces rather than just flattering the far right. My feelings grew stronger as I went through this year’s legislative session and saw what It was serious. We need the 2023 regular session to be very different. We are going to have to replace those who keep pushing things just for political ends. “
Common Ground is not a third party. He will likely end up mainly supporting the candidates who hire the incumbents of the Republican primaries next year.
With all due respect to people like Hendren and Schaffer, the secret to Common Ground’s success may well be Energetic Stonecrop. She grew up in Hector in the Ozark Mountains north of Russellville.
“What I consider traditional Arkansas values resonate with me,” she says. “I recognize that Jim is one of those people uniquely positioned to make a difference in this state. He and I are different ideologically, but we love Arkansas and have found common ground.”
In an interview earlier this year with the Arkansas Times, Orpin said, “I’m not interested in doing something that isn’t genuine, that doesn’t target real Arkansans. I believe in real people. don’t come from fancy people I’m a fifth generation Arkansan who cares … about this place I live in. My roots run so deep here. By God, with all its faults, I’m proud of my condition. I want to have more to be proud of. “
Orpin was the regional trail coordinator for the Northwest Arkansas Council in 2013-14, then served from 2015-17 as the executive director of the Downtown Springdale Alliance. After spending three years working in communications and strategic planning for the University of Arkansas, she worked in marketing for Black Apple in downtown Springdale, which makes hard cider. It was Schaffer who introduced me to this company.
In March 2020, Orpin launched Arkansascovid.com with the aim of understanding how the pandemic was affecting the state. She launched it from a laptop and quickly gained acclaim across the state for calculating and analyzing numbers that exceeded anything the state government did. The site’s Twitter feed had more than 11,000 followers.
In August, Orpin handed this project over to the UA School of Journalism and Strategic Media. Now she leads a group of Arkansas business and political leaders looking for common ground. Those of us who care about the future of this state wish them luck.
Rex Nelson is editor-in-chief at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.