Though Arkansas House races aren’t usually a cause for excitement, this year’s election in District 39 (North Little Rock) will draw some attention. The controversial candidacy of Dwayne Dobbins, a Democrat who resigned from the House after pleading guilty to a criminal charge in 2005, has given the Arkansas Green Party an opportunity to win its first seat in the legislature.
North Little Rock boilermaker Richard Carroll will be on the ballot for the Green Party; no Republican is running. And though it may be difficult for the inexperienced Carroll to defeat Dobbins, legislators on both sides of the aisle have said they will try to deny Dobbins the seat should he win.
Dobbins’s 2005 resignation was a part of a plea bargain that reduced a felony sexual assault charge to a misdemeanor harassment charge after allegations that Dobbins improperly touched a 17-year-old girl. The seat is now held by his wife, Sharon Dobbins, who won a special election after her husband resigned. Though the party expected her to run again, her husband filed for the race an hour and a half before the deadline.
The state Democratic Party is not supporting Dobbins, and it has been unable to recruit a write-in candidate to run against him. The deadline for filing with the Secretary of State’s office as a write-in is Aug. 6.
Though the Democrats have not stopped trying to enlist a write-in candidate, general anxiety over the situation may be reduced now that the Greens have enlisted Carroll, 51, for the ballot. A graduate of Catholic High, his previous political experience is limited to races for office in his union local, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. He has worked for Union Pacific since 1993.
In an interview at his North Little Rock home, Carroll said he became interested in running after reading of how Dobbins filed at the last minute. “There was nobody to step up,” he said. “If not me, then who’s going to run?”
Carroll is not a natural Green, but he said the opportunity to appear on the ballot, rather than as a write-in candidate as he had discussed with the Democratic Party, was too good to pass up. “I looked over their Ten Points of Value and told them I didn’t have a problem with them,” said Carroll of the state Green Party platform. “I don’t have to agree wholly with every one. My base is basically Democratic.”
Carroll said that he would not make the criminal conviction against Dobbins an issue in the race, though he considers it fair game to discuss the manner in which Dobbins filed for the election. He emphasized that he wants to focus on issues. He said he would work to secure funding to reduce crime rates. He would try to improve vocational training so residents of the district are better prepared to earn a living wage. He also sees an opportunity to increase light industry in the district, an oddly-shaped area that includes, besides portions of North Little Rock, the communities of of Rixey, Valentine, McAlmont, and a wide swath of land running northeast to Jacksonville.
Dobbins is talking issues, too. In a telephone interview, he said that he would focus on economic improvement. “Something I’ve done in the past is help with technology. Doing some things in that area that pay dividends as far as some legislation for technology granting funds. We also need to look at issues such as gas prices, alternative fuel sources and biodiesel.”
He said that he doesn’t believe the allegations he faced in 2005 should become an issue. “We are — we should be — people who have to show those characteristics of loving their neighbor as you would love yourself,” Dobbins said. “There is much forgiveness and much love, there’s a whole bunch of support I received during that period and now. So I don’t know who would bring that up as an issue. We need to move on to what is happening now.”
Dobbins said he was no longer in contact with the woman he was accused of fondling. The woman could not be reached for comment.
Dobbins said he did not act improperly when he filed for the seat just ahead of the deadline. “All I know is that the seat was open to anybody to file and run,” he explained. “I really give all credit to God for holding back people who may have wanted to run.”
Dobbins added, “There was nothing nefarious on my part or on my wife’s part.” He asserted that since his wife works as a nurse for the Little Rock veterans hospital, it is illegal for her to run under the federal Hatch Act, which forbids certain government employees from pursuing partisan office.
Asked if he saw his candidacy as an opportunity for redemption, Dobbins said, “I’ve already been redeemed. I’m not going to live in condemnation at all.”
Local officials aren’t so forgiving. Pulaski Prosecutor Larry Jegley, who brokered the 2005 plea agreement that banished Dobbins from the House, is upset that Dobbins decided to run again.
“I think it’s an insult to the care with which our criminal justice system operates,” said Jegley of Dobbins’ last-minute filing. “In an open court, on the record, my office specifically articulated what the proof [of a felony sexual assault charge] would be if we went to trial. He was specifically asked if we could prove that, he said yes, and his attorney agreed that we could prove that if we went to trial. And he was asked, ‘Are you pleading guilty because you are guilty?’ and he said yes. (Dobbins has since contradicted his statement to the prosecutor and argued that he was simply taking his attorney’s advice by pleading guilty to a lesser charge.)
Recent comments from state legislators suggest that Dobbins can expect more than just a frosty welcome should he win — there’s a chance he might not be seated at all. Democratic and Republican lawmakers made comments to that effect last week.
At a meeting of the Northwest Arkansas Political Animals on Friday, Rep. Steve Harrelson (D-Texarkana) said that House members have discussed barring Dobbins if he’s elected. He qualified those comments, however, by saying that it will be difficult to overrule the voters of District 39 now that Dobbins has an opponent on the ballot. Otherwise, legislators might have been able to argue that Dobbins’ last-minute filing robbed voters of a real choice. In a follow-up interview with the Times, Harrelson said, “I know there are a lot of House members who are interested in not seating him; whether or not that takes place, I just have a hard time seeing it.”
Republican Rep. Bryan King of Green Forest, the newly elected leader of the House Republican Caucus, was less reserved in his assessment of the situation. “There’s a likely possibility that not seating him will be addressed,” King told the Times.
Whether a movement to deny Dobbins a seat would cause tension among legislators remains to be seen. To this point, it appears that no lawmakers have rallied to Dobbins’ side.
Sen. Tracy Steele of North Little Rock said that the Legislative Black Caucus, of which he is a member, has not met to discuss Dobbins, who is black. The Democrat said that though he supports Dobbins personally, and though he has supported him politically in the past, he has not yet decided whether to endorse him in this race.
House Parliamentarian Tim Massanelli said there is no set procedure for preventing a newly elected representative from being seated. It generally involves a motion during the House swearing-in ceremony. A representative-elect was last banned from taking office in 1991, when Jimmy L. Wilson was refused his seat after being convicted of a federal misdemeanor in the months between his election and inauguration. A special election is called in the event that a legislator is not seated.
It is unclear whether an attempt to remove Dobbins would withstand legal scrutiny. Article 5, Section 9 of the Arkansas Constitution deems ineligible for the General Assembly anyone convicted of “embezzlement of public money, bribery, forgery or other infamous crime.” Article 5, Section 11 more broadly states that each house of the legislature “shall be sole judge of the qualifications, returns and elections of its own members.”
Talk about barring Dobbins is early yet, however — Dobbins and Carroll still have a race to run. Disregarding the sex charges, Dobbins has an advantage from his history in the district — in addition to his previous time as a representative, he was once a North Little Rock alderman. Carroll has lived in the district for only four years, though he has pledged a vigorous door-knocking campaign.
Identity politics might also be a factor since 59.3 percent of District 39’s voting-age population is black. But Carroll, who is white and whose wife, Una, is African-American, says he doesn’t expect racial considerations to be an issue. “Everyone in the district has to come together,” Carroll said. “I’m going to communicate with all the community. The only race that I’m concerned about is the one that I’m trying to win.”
“I’m a working class person,” Carroll added. “The majority of my district is working class.”