The Little Rock New Party


Special to The Progressive Populist

Last fall, as the Clintons and their donors lavishly celebrated their election night victory at the Old Statehouse in Little Rock, another group -- less wealthy but clearly more important in the long run -- partied across town at a small local watering hole. A campaign finance reform initiative supported by the chapter swept the state by a two-to-one margin, surprising politicians and fat cats alike. And to the even greater astonishment of local big money politicians, the LRNP won its first at-large seat on the Little Rock City Board.

The Little Rock New Party has put three members on the City Board of Directors, three more on the School Board, and has solo representatives on the County Quorum Court (county board) and in the state Legislature. In a city long controlled by developers and wealthy interests, and long divided along racial lines, the New Party is building a multi-racial labor- and community-based political organization that is electing its own members to office and holding them accountable to a progressive program. In doing so, it's demonstrating how an independent political group can build political power for working and minority people at the local level.

In talking to New Party leaders in Little Rock, four main reasons for the success of the chapter emerge: having a multi-racial and active membership base; building a strong labor-community coalition; developing a set of issues that build popular support; and recruiting candidates from within the party's ranks.

Building the Base: Numbers = Power

THE LITTLE ROCK New Party has long understood that building a strong grassroots membership base is critical on a number of levels. Without corporate donors or wealthy supporters, membership dues are needed to finance the party's organizing. Members hit the streets, knock on doors and work the phones to elect fellow members to office. They also provide the grassroots base to hold those elected officials accountable and advance a progressive agenda.

Little Rock New Party co-chair Johnnie Pugh says, "The key to our success has been committed people. Since we don't have a lot of money, we've had to get our people to get out there and knock on doors and carry our message across the city."

New Party candidates, often low-income residents, usually running for office for the first time, can't rely on existing party machines or expensive ads and direct mail campaigns. In Little Rock, and around the country, the New Party elects candidates through building strong "people's machines."

For example, New Party organizers and interns have been sweating it out under the sun this summer to build an organizing committee in Little Rock Wards 1 and 2 -- target districts for city council races in 1998. The party has recruited more than 80 members -- mostly poor and minority residents -- in these wards over the last two months.

In a city long divided along racial lines, the New Party has been particularly careful to build a multi-racial organization. About a third of the New Party members are white; two-thirds are African-American.

"The New Party has become perhaps the one place in the city where blacks and whites both feel comfortable. That's almost unheard of in Arkansas politics," said party co-chair Jim Lynch, the chair of the city's Racial and Cultural Diversity Committee.

A Popular Program For Working People

KEY TO THE NEW PARTY'S success over the last three years has been developing a progressive agenda that appeals to the party's base.

"Our most successful issue has definitely been campaign finance. You can talk to people about honesty and integrity and they know what they want," says Lynch. "We're also calling attention to some of the wasteful policies our city has been promoting. The developers are trying to expand the city westward. What's happening is that as a new part of the city gets built, we're abandoning infrastructure in the older city, only to have to pay for it again out west. It's draining essential resources and shifting them to the new, wealthier neighborhoods."

Lynch continues, "We discovered that City Board members had been accepting large donations from developers and then voting for their projects. Our two City Board candidates called for a rule banning Board members from accepting campaign donations until July of the year they were running for re-election. And two of the leading recipients of developer money went down in defeat, one to our candidate in a city-wide race. When we first came to the City Board with this proposal, they sneered. Now the biggest sneerers are gone, and the board adopted our reforms as soon as they could."

The New Party also played a key role, along with Arkansas ACORN, in supporting a successful statewide initiative for campaign reform. The measure, which received more votes in 1996 than hometown kid Bill Clinton, established low contribution limits ($300 for statewide candidates; $100 for local), tightened disclosure and reporting requirements, and provides a tax credit for small contributors.

More recently, the New Party has led a series of issue campaigns to hold its elected officials accountable to a progressive agenda. This winter it won a City Board ordinance that requires the police chief to report regularly in public on the use of force and hiring and promotion practices in the police force.

Little Rock New Party elected City Board members have also been successful in protecting funding for bus service (largely used by low-income residents) and youth intervention programs. Most recently, the party held a well-attended meeting to develop an education platform. At the top of the list: school safety and discipline, shifting resources into schools in low-income areas, and exploring community-run charter schools.

The elected officials

UNLIKE THE MAJOR PARTIES, the Little Rock New Party hasn't just let candidates come to them. They go out and actively recruit neighborhood leaders to run for office.

"We got started by talking about getting grassroots people into the political system. I got involved because there are people I know who are good people and who would be good in office, but don't have the money to run," says chapter co-chair Johnnie Pugh, also the president of Arkansas ACORN.

"We felt we needed to elect people who would really represent us. If you've never had to eat pinto beans and bread, you don't know what it's about. We want people in office who know what it's about and know what our communities really need."

In 1994, the New Party elected two members to the City Board. It was the first time that activists from low to moderate income communities had been elected to the board.

"In the twenty-five years of at-large elections, something like two-thirds of the elected officials had come from just three affluent neighborhoods." says Lynch. "When we elected Gloria [Wilson] and Willie [Hinton], that really shook up the establishment."

Since then, the New Party has elected a third member to the City Board, two members on the school board and solo representatives to the county board and the state House.

While still small, and certainly not yet powerful, the Little Rock New Party has demonstrated that it is possible to build a multi-racial, class based organization that can articulate a progressive agenda, elect grassroots candidates to office, and begin to pass legislation benefiting working people.

Jason Murphy is an community organizer with Arkansas ACORN, and a member of the Little Rock New Party.

For more information on the New Party, call 1-800-200-1294, email, or check out the web site at

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 1997 The Progressive Populist