Rep. Mark McElroy of Tillar says he’s “too conservative really to be a Democrat, but I’m too poor to be a Republican.” Earlier this year, he decided he didn’t want either label, and now he’s campaigning to see if his district’s voters will send him back to the Capitol as an independent.
McElroy spent 20 years as Desha County judge before winning election to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2012. He represents District 11 in Arkansas’ southeastern corner along the Mississippi River. He’s always been elected as a Democrat, but he didn’t really fit into either party. He didn’t like the national Democrats’ stand on social issues like abortion, but he believed the Republican Party’s policies favored the top 1 percent. He chafed at morning caucus meetings where he felt he was being told how to vote, regardless of his district’s wishes. He drew a primary opponent from his own party in the last election and did again this year.
Faced with all that, this spring he decided to leave the party and become an independent. He's the only one in the Legislature.
“I don’t see why you have to fit in,” he said Tuesday after attending a meeting of the House and Senate Education Committees. “I don’t know why you have to be a label to represent your people.”
McElroy isn’t the first legislator to leave their party to become an independent. In 2015, Rep. Nate Bell of Mena announced he was done with the Republicans.
But Bell was leaving the Legislature to do other things. McElroy is seeking re-election.
So far, this campaign hasn’t been so different than McElroy’s previous ones, other than his collecting a couple of hundred signatures rather than pay a party filing fee. He was struck by voters’ willingness to sign his petition as they expressed their own frustrations with the two parties. He’s raised money — he says he has $16,000 or $17,000 in the bank — thanks to his long political history and his incumbency. The donations have come from a fundraising mailer and from lobbying organizations. Meanwhile, he’s campaigning the way he always has for 34 years, by riding a sign-carrying bicycle throughout the district. He says he can relate to working people who only want “enough money left to send their kids to get a good education after they pay their taxes. You know, they don’t want the cheese. They just want out of the trap some time.”
While McElroy’s incumbency certainly helps him, any independent candidate faces an uphill battle. Many people vote one party or the other, even if they don’t consider themselves a party member. State legislative races are often low-information affairs where voters don’t know much about the candidates, and the “R” or “D” by their names make a big difference. Some argue a vote shouldn’t be “wasted” on an independent who can’t win. Instead, voters should pick a side, even if they are merely voting for the lesser of two evils. McElroy says, “It might be the biggest mistake I ever made, but if I got to go down, I’m going to go on my terms, and I’m going to go fighting for the people instead of the party.”
Regardless of party label, campaigning for the Legislature can be humbling. McElroy said he recently was campaigning before daylight on a rainy day in Dumas when a young man stopped his vehicle and handed him a $10 bill. McElroy thanked him, believing it was a campaign donation. Then the driver said, “That’ll feed you one day, old man.” McElroy responded, “Well, I’m not homeless. I’m your state representative.”
“He said, ‘Well, give me my durn $10 back,’ and he left,” McElroy said with a laugh. “I swear. He squealed his tire.”
McElroy says his fellow legislators treat him much as they did before. Some Democrats might be unhappy with him, while some Republicans tease him that his “caucus” meets in a phone booth. Several legislators have made comments about joining him as an independent if he can pull it off. He’s not sure how serious they were. He says it feels good to cast votes without having to see what his colleagues are doing.
Will he still be casting those votes next year? We’ll find out November 6, when his district’s voters will decide what label they want their state legislator to wear, or if “representative” is enough.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.