By JOEL PHELPS | arkadelphian.com
About 300 Democrats, most of them hailing from South Arkansas, gathered Saturday evening at Henderson State University’s Garrison Center for the 27th annual Clinton Day Dinner, hosted by the Democratic Party of Clark County.
A jovial crowd devoted their attention to a young Callen Johnson as he led the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a harmonious rendition of the National Anthem by the Ouachita Singers quartet. Dr. Bob Fisher, Henderson’s interim chancellor, delivered welcoming remarks as banquet-goers recognized prominent Democratic leaders and regional caucuses. A live auction took center stage with a comedic twist on a recent controversy.
Taking a jab at Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s $19,000 lectern, former state Sen. Bruce Maloch began Saturday’s live auction by opening the first bid on the podium at which he stood. The “bid” was closed at $20,000 and was to be “billed to the [Arkansas] Republican Party,” Maloch joked.
Under the direction of Zach Bledsoe, chair of the Clark County Democratic Party, members were recognized for their service to the local branch. They were:
Karen Wieman, who served as the Democratic Election Commissioner from 2017-2022. It is customary for the commissioner to receive the award at the following Clinton Day Dinner after the service has concluded.
Albert Neal, District 4 Justice of the Peace who was first elected in 1992 and has served 30 years on the Clark County Quorum Court. Neal currently chairs the Personnel Committee.
Dr. Judy Harrison received the Public Education Advocate Award. Harrison is a retired educator who was the CAPES coordinator for Clark County this summer when the group was collecting signatures for the ballot. Harrison aided other counties in Southwest Arkansas with collecting signatures.
Drs. Tommy and Johnnie Roebuck, who both served in the Arkansas Legislature as delegates representing Clark County. Tommy Roebuck chaired the local party for many years, and Johnnie Roebuck is the National Committeewoman from the Democratic Party of Arkansas to the National Committee. The Roebucks have retired to Garland County after 50 years of service to the county and local Democratic Party. Both are also past recipients of the Bob Riley Award.
Clark County Sheriff Jason Watson was given the Bob Riley Award. Watson was elected sheriff in 2010 and has more than 27 years of experience in local law enforcement. Watson was given the honor based on his willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty.
Aim for the majority, Democrats urged
Before an introduction of the guest speaker, Bledsoe said the Democratic Party is making a resurgence in Clark County after suffering low membership in recent years. Membership had gotten as low as 30 active members, but that number has doubled in recent years, Bledsoe said. The party was also successful in the 2022 election, capturing additional seats on the Clark County Quorum Court.
Grant Tenille, chair of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, introduced the keynote speaker, Sen. Linda Chesterfield, a Hope native and retired middle school teacher.
In a 14-minute speech, Chesterfield rallied fellow Democrats to “continue to do things that help people, not hurt people.” She was referring to the “war” she said state Republicans waged on education in Arkansas.
She applauded certain aspects of the Republican-led LEARNS Act — namely, $50,000 starting salaries for teachers. “But we got a real problem,” she said. “When you take away Fair Dismissal, when you take away a salary schedule because what are you gonna make after $50,000? How are underfunded, rural school districts going to continue to be able to compete when they don’t have the money because they have no funding stream?”
Calling out Sen. Dan Sullivan, Chesterfield put down “Book Ban Dan’s” attempts to keep certain books off of library shelves. She recounted how she argued with Sullivan and other Republicans in hearings over DEI at Arkansas universities. Diversity on campus, she said, is imperative in order to encourage a younger generation to attend college.
“We need decency,” she said, concluding. “We don’t need wars on PBS [or] on books we don’t to want to read [or] anybody else to read. We need to be building our children into thinking individuals. We want them to be, we want them to think, we want them to thrive — and that’s what Democrats give to our children.”