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.
Over the last two months, Smith has trekked across the 26 counties that make up the enormous 1st District. Her take: People want to talk about the issues and not race.
"They want to know where I stand on the conservative spectrum," she says. "They want to know where I stand on immigration and abortion. It's more about what's affecting their lives."
Smith garnered the endorsement of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the state's largest newspaper, last weekend. "Every congressional district should have a candidate who's this outgoing, smart and just plain eager to get to work on your behalf — and with enough enthusiasm to light up the whole state from her home in Wynne, Ark.," the editorial endorsement said. "She doesn't have talking points. She just talks to you."
"Arkansas has not had many black candidates for national or statewide office, in no small part because our African-American population is comparatively small, not to mention concentrated in the central and southeastern regions of the state," says Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas.
Elliott is a different case. Little Rock's urban center, where Elliott has a groundswell of support, accounts for 50 percent of the vote in the district. She has successfully peeled away some of Snyder's supporters from the four men in her race.
"She is not only extraordinarily charismatic but is well-versed in a number of important policy issues, particularly education," says Parry. "The conventional wisdom going into the race seemed to be that she was too liberal and — frankly — too black to get the nomination, much less have a shot at the general. But I suspect her campaign may have changed some minds."
Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based journalist who writes frequently about politics and Southern culture for The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor, US News & World Report and Politics Daily.