A funny thing happens when a person runs for public office. They become a brand, a commodity, a symbol. “Liberal” or “conservative,” “extreme” or “moderate,” “establishment” or “reformer.” Their complexities and quirks are pushed aside until they can be easily defined through the lens of partisanship rather than understood as full and complete human beings. Apparently, when the name of the game is turning out your base and getting them to the polls, complexity just gets in the way.
Maybe honesty gets in the way, too, judging by recent attacks on 2nd District congressional candidate Joyce Elliott. Her opponent, U.S. Rep. French Hill, is suddenly very eager to paint Elliott as a radical activist with an extreme agenda. He recently sent out a mail piece defining her as a “liberal activist” who is “too divisive to move us forward.” By painting Elliott as a militant liberal, Hill’s attacks make it much easier for voters to focus on the “(D)” beside her name and not think about her childhood in rural Willisville (Nevada County), or her work as a leading advocate for improving our public schools. There is clearly a plan to cast Elliott as a racially tinged caricature of an antifa rioter rather than letting voters get to know her as a real person. The problem is, this portrayal of Elliott is just not accurate. And it seems to me that, if her opponents are desperate enough to try to paint such a popular and well-respected lawmaker as an extremist, it’s because they’re afraid she’s about to win.
How do I know that the ads and mail pieces that are being sent out against Elliott are false and misleading (I mean, other than the fact that the images were photoshopped)? It’s because I actually know Joyce Elliott. She has spent several evenings sitting at my kitchen table, often in a sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers, talking to my family about public education. She didn’t rely on oversimplified, hyperpartisan talking points. Instead, she asked me how my kids were doing. She talked about school funding for counselors and school nurses. She talked about how we need to do a better job of teaching kids how to read and then making sure they have access to books and high-speed internet.
Senator Elliott also listened when my daughter complained that she and her classmates didn’t have enough time to eat lunch and play outside at school each day. Then, as she always does, Joyce Elliott rolled up her sleeves and got to work. She met with a group of frustrated parents who wanted our kids to have an age-appropriate amount of recess time but who hadn’t been able to make any headway on the issue due to burdensome state laws that provided no flexibility to allow kids to play. She encouraged us to use our time and energy to push for change. She brought us to the Capitol to speak to legislators about our concerns, and ultimately she cosponsored, along with several leading Republicans, a popular bill that gave Arkansas kids more recess time. Watching Senator Elliot hug ecstatic parents and cheer with happy kids as Governor Hutchinson signed the recess bill into law, I reflected on how much work she had done to get us to that moment. To me, she will always be a remarkable woman who put in a lot of time, energy, research, and hard work in order to help my children. Is this really the person that Hill’s campaign is trying to smear as dangerous, divisive, and extreme?
So, while the conventional wisdom is that it is really dumb for a candidate like me to weigh in on anyone else’s race while running for office, I just can’t sit around quietly and watch as misinformation is spread about a woman I know to be good, decent and imminently reasonable. When recent polling showed Elliott in a statistical tie against Hill, local political pundits predicted that the numbers would quickly scare the GOP into ham-handed attempts to discredit Elliott as a radical. It did. They did. And now it’s time to set the record straight.
Last January, I had the privilege of interviewing Elliott for the Arkansas Times Week in Review Podcast, and one of the very first things we talked about is how important it is to her that she serve as both a unifier and an advocate. She explained that, while she is passionate about fighting for the people of Arkansas, she is just as passionate about how she does the work. Politics isn’t about arguing and winning, she said. It’s about working together to solve problems and help people. If you’re getting the impression that this a woman who takes the moral and ethical obligations of her office very seriously, you’d be right. She feels a duty to do her job in a way that strengthens rather than weakens our democracy. In light of our current political climate, think about how remarkable that is. Elliott is the most prominent Democrat in the state, and yet, when asked what she’s proud of, she talks about working across the aisle and forming bipartisan coalitions that bring people together.
Her record of bipartisan successes stems from her willingness to listen. I’m a patient person. I consider it one of my greatest strengths. But Joyce Elliott is next level. I have no idea how she does it. Actually, wait . . . yes I do. More than anyone I have ever known, Joyce Elliott genuinely loves people — and not just people who agree with her. She sees goodness and humanity in everyone. She has built deep friendships with some of our state’s most conservative Republican leaders, and she is able to connect with them on a real and personal level by focusing on the issues and the people, not the partisan labels. I hope the voters will do the same for her.
Joyce Elliott isn’t a puppet of the “radical left.” No, she trusts her gut and her own moral compass, and she’s just as likely to stand up to her own party as she to her opponents. I’m not sure if Elliott is a Harry Potter fan, but she has always reminded me of a memorable Dumbledore quote from that series: “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”
Elliott has no shortage of courage; trust me when I say that this woman has a backbone made of steel. That’s how, in this age of hyper-partisanship and incivility, Elliott has demonstrated that it’s still possible to build bridges and work together. The reason she is able to get so much done — the superpower that makes her so effective — is her absolute refusal to make policy based on political convenience or dismiss the ideas of people who disagree with her. Instead, she listens, learns and responds to her opponents’ concerns, and by doing so, she is ultimately able to craft practical solutions that everyone can get behind.
If you’re sick of the partisan gridlock and incivility in Washington, don’t reward it at your local polling place on Nov. 3. Joyce Elliott is running a clean campaign focused on issues that affect our daily lives. Health care. Schools. Jobs. While her opponent is sending photoshopped mail pieces that imply that she’s rioting in the streets, Elliott is busy visiting small family farms and talking to disabled veterans. Please don’t let doctored photos and misleading ads convince you otherwise.
That photo, by the way, the one that Hill’s campaign altered to make Elliott look militant and menacing? It was taken at a rally at the Capitol supporting public school teachers. I know because I took it. That afternoon, Joyce Elliott spoke eloquently about her lifelong career as an English teacher, her hopes and dreams for her granddaughter, and her mission to provide a world-class public education for every child in Arkansas. Scary stuff, right?