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Standing up: Arkansas Democrats are getting on board with LGBT rights

Standing up: Arkansas Democrats are getting on board with LGBT rights
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — As they head to their national convention this week, Arkansas Democrats are still at a crossroads as they adjust to being in the minority in a state they long dominated. Should the party continue linking itself to the glory days of the Clinton years, or start promoting its fresher faces in a hope to build up its bench for future elections? So far, the answer seems to be a little bit of both. That balance was on full display earlier this month when the party hosted its annual Jefferson Jackson fundraising dinner. Former President Bill Clinton headlined the event, a year after his wife and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton addressed the same group. It was a sign the party is still banking on excitement about the state’s native son and adopted daughter to help energize Democrats two years after Republicans completed their sweep of statewide and federal offices. “There is just such a deep personal connection between the Clintons and Arkansas,” State Party Chairman Vince Insalaco told reporters at the event. Former Gov. Mike Beebe, who won two terms and enjoyed high approval ratings even as the state shifted to the right, praised the 42nd president for balancing the federal budget and said Hillary Clinton could do the same thing. “If all that rhetoric about trying to balance the budget’s important, all you have to do is look to the last person who ever did it,” Beebe said. Though the Clintons remain popular figures in the party, Democrats appear to acknowledge that nostalgia for the party’s heyday isn’t enough for a rebound. Republicans have been able to transform Arkansas from a Democratic stronghold in the South to firmly GOP territory primarily by focusing on President Barack Obama’s deep unpopularity in the state. If the speeches at the JJ dinner were any indication, Democrats are trying to move away from the state party’s split-the-difference style on social issues like gay rights. Democratic Senate hopeful Conner Eldridge used his speech before 2,000 people at Verizon Arena to call for anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people. “We stand with individuals in the LGBT community, and it’s not OK to say they should live in a world where discrimination against them is legalized, where hate crimes are tolerated, that’s not OK,” Eldridge said.

It’s a shift for a state party whose top elected officials for the most part didn’t support same-sex marriage before it was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court last year. And it also comes a year and a half after high-profile fights in the Legislature over measures that critics called anti-gay, including a religious objections law that Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson asked lawmakers to revise over those objections.

Top Democrats indicated they’re more willing to wade into those fights.

“We have got to talk about these issues,” House Minority Leader Michael John Gray said. “The world is changing, and it’s changing fast, too fast for some and not fast enough for others. We can’t expect everyone to understand and embrace this change off the bat, but we can expect some decency from them.”

The fundraiser also appeared to be a pep rally for Democrats to move past the recent election losses. State Sen. Linda Chesterfield, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, urged Democrats to not give up after recent losses. She noted that Hutchinson reached the governor’s office after three unsuccessful attempts at statewide office.

“What’s wrong with us?” Chesterfield said. “It’s time to get up, dust ourselves off, start all over again and fight.”

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