Two Black Women Vie to Diversify Arkansas

Bill Clinton's home state has never sent an African American to Congress. This year a Republican and a Democrat aim to change that.

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Arkansas has never elected an African American to a federal office -- ever -- much less a black woman. That could change this year as two candidates -- one Democrat, one Republican -- attempt to diversify the congressional delegation of this Old South state.

Democrat Joyce Elliott, 59, a state legislator and retired schoolteacher, is running for the open 2nd Congressional seat left by retiring Rep. Vic Snyder. In January Snyder, a beloved 14-year congressman, announced that he would retire from politics to spend more time with his family.

Snyder's district encompasses Arkansas' capital, Little Rock, along with seven counties that are more rural than urban. Political pundits see Elliott, a progressive who is running against four men in Tuesday's primary, making significant inroads to force a June 3 runoff. "There comes a time when you're called on to change history, and I think it's my time," Elliott says.

In the impoverished Delta region that lines the Mississippi River, Republican Princella Smith, 26, is running in a primary against broadcaster Rick Crawford. Smith's 1st District sits in a Democratic-leaning region that hasn't voted Republican since Reconstruction. If she won, she would be the first black Republican woman in Congress. Although she has her old boss Newt Gingrich's support, voters simply don't know her because she has worked in Washington, D.C., in recent years.

Elliott, however, has been creating a political network for years. But she almost left the South for a better opportunity in the North. In 1969 Elliott's uncle in Michigan told her to leave southern Arkansas. He offered to pay college tuition, rent an apartment and buy a car for her.

Those enticements, along with tragic events that had occurred in the South during the civil rights movement, made Elliott seriously consider a move. "Things had happened that made you want to get the hell out of the South," she says. "My uncle said, 'You're smart, you can go places. Just get out of the South.' "

She didn't. Instead she got a loan, worked her way through Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia and became a schoolteacher. In 2001 Elliott became a state legislator. Some critics have said that Elliott -- tall and willowy, with cropped hair that is barely a quarter of an inch long -- has a modern image that, combined with her progressive stances, can't win against a Republican in the November general election.

"I'm not naive about that," Elliott says. "But that's what you hear with the chattering of the leadership of the Democratic Party and Republicans. Average people have a different attitude."

While they don't agree on many issues, Smith says that she, too, senses change on the ground. "What I've seen are tons of older whites saying that it is so refreshing that a young person, a minority, is willing to take a stand for the party," Smith says. "I think people are getting beyond the fact that you're black."

Smith stays up late at night, thinking about the race. If she can pull off a primary win on Tuesday against Crawford, she will make history. Then she starts focusing on November.

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