Charges of Racism Fly in Arkansas Runoff

Posted June 2, 2010 at 9:21am

The president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP said Tuesday that he’s worried racism is rearing its ugly head in Arkansas’ 2nd district Democratic runoff.

Dale Charles, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he is concerned about what Speaker Robbie Wills and his supporters really mean when they question the “electability” of the other candidate, state Senate Majority Leader Joyce Elliott, who is black.

“To say that she’s not electable — that’s a code word for racism,” Charles said. “She is electable in her [state Senate] district and served three terms in the [state] House. She came out on top in a field of five in the primary. … Why all the sudden does the word electability come up?”

Elliott won just under 40 percent of the vote in the May 18 primary to set up a Tuesday runoff with Wills, who took second place in the primary with about 28 percent.

The winner of the runoff will face former U.S. attorney Tim Griffin, who has been highly touted by national Republican leaders to take over the seat being vacated by Rep. Vic Snyder (D).

In the Little Rock-based 2nd district, almost one in five voters is black, giving it the second largest black population in the state behind the sprawling 4th district to the south.

If Elliott wins her primary and goes on to win the general election, she would become the first black U.S. Representative from Arkansas.

But Charles said he believes that Wills and his supporters are using the fact that a black candidate has never been elected to Congress in the state as a reason for saying that it can’t happen this time.

Wills responded Tuesday that he never has and never would inject race into his campaign.

“The way that I have always put it is that I give the party the best chance of keeping this seat and that is a factor of a number of things,” Wills said.

One factor Wills pointed to is his campaign organization in the seven counties outside Pulaski County, where Little Rock is based. While Elliott outpolled Wills by about 15,000 votes in Pulaski County in the primary, Wills finished first place in all the seven other counties. Wills’ supporters have argued that those counties will become even more important in the general election fight ahead.

But Wills said the main reason he gives the party the best chance of holding the seat in the fall is that Elliott’s “extreme views” are “out of touch with Arkansas values.”

In the crowded primary, voters didn’t get the chance to dig into Elliott’s voting record, which Wills said is a main reason why he is more electable. Wills has recently worked to paint Elliott as far too liberal when it comes to the issue of abortion.

He added that if anyone has injected race into the runoff, it’s Elliott.

“Sen. Elliott has on many occasions made the point she’s the only African-American female in the race.”

Asked if “electable” could have other meanings rather than a racial one, Elliott acknowledged that it certainly could, but she added, “I don’t know in this case if they apply.”

“The use of the word is a bit confounding,” she said. “I surely hope nobody is going to vote for Robbie because he’s white. I don’t think they’re going to not vote for me because I’m black.”