LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - During an in-depth interview with Capitol View's Jessi Turnure, the new leader of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, Michael John Gray, examined the future of his party from the local to national level and how upcoming elections could lead to a blue resurgence.
One of the initial goals into his two-month tenure is to make party membership more inclusive across the state.
"You don't necessarily have to be politically connected or politically pedigreed to be a part of the process in the Democratic Party," Gray said. "I've been seeing a lot of energy, not just the protest energy but energy all the way around about being involved. It's very encouraging."
The farmer from Augusta said he plans to do more listening than telling people what they should think.
"Understanding an issue that's big in rural Woodruff County may not be a big issue in rural Randolph County," he said. "The initial goal is to remind all of us why we're Democrats. That's simply that no matter the issue, we're on the side that helps people."
As a member of the Arkansas House of Representatives, Gray serves District 47, which includes portions of Woodruff, Jackson, White and Independence counties. Before his new leadership role, he served as the minority leader of the House.
During this time, Gray has seen his party dwindle but has no intention of letting it disappear.
"Things matter to you at home," he said. "While it is a shrinking minority, we have great geographic diversity still. Sixty-percent of elected officials in Arkansas today are Democrats."
A position Gray hopes to strengthen during the 2018 elections, keeping his eye fixed primarily on county positions, like judges and clerks.
"The business of the counties, the courthouses, the property records, the court records, those are Democrats maintaining those," he said.
Gray is also fixated on Gov. Asa Hutchinson's seat but not for himself.
"It won't be me," he said laughing. "There have definitely been times where he has, despite his party or in spite of his party, made the right move to lead Arkansas so I've been one of those that's been a little guilty of creating this bulletproof version of the governor. But I think there's some real conversations and issues out there the Arkansas voter needs to know about that the governor has been on the wrong side of."
Gray listed the governor kicking working people off health insurance and bringing the NRA to the state capitol during the controversial campus carry debate as some of his faults.
"Does that ultimately beat the governor?," he asked. "That's up to the voters, but people need to know those kind of things were done."
Gray wouldn't hint at who would challenge Hutchinson in 2018 but did say the gubernatorial race could come down to a couple issues, such as health care and education.
"There's a long time between now and November," he said. "This election should be about how do we make life better for Arkansans who don't necessarily live in the economic boom areas."
Gray is even looking ahead to 2020.
"We're getting close to redistricting," he said. "We've seen this real energy and upset with all four of Arkansas's congressmen and their vote on health care. The governor, secretary of state and attorney general race will all affect how the districts are redrawn going into 2020."
While Gray is focused on statewide issues, it's impossible for him to ignore what's going on with the Trump administration in Washington. Arkansas Democrats say the president who was elected on a populist platform is making decisions that aren't benefiting farmers and people in rural Arkansas counties.
"Rural America elected President Trump, whether I like it or not," he said. "I don't see that rural America's issues are being addressed."
Health care quickly came to mind.
"Do you think the way Trump's plan for health care is moving...," Turnure started to ask.
"Does he have a plan?," Gray said. "Show me a plan and we'll talk about how Democrats can make it better because that's what we do."
Gray said the issue could affect the presidential election in 2020, similar to the way Republicans used Obamacare in 2016.
"I think that's the easy go-to that the lack of a plan or the Trump mistake of the day so to speak," he said. "But I think the genuine reason that will move voters long-term is that people know we care about their issues."
To make a comeback, Gray believes his party needs to do a better job of fighting issues at the national, state and local levels.
"Ultimately, we've all got to grow up," he said. "I hit an age where blaming it on my sister didn't work with my parents any more. At some point, President Trump can blame it on the media, on the Republican majority... the politics of doing nothing is just not going to work. When people see that Democrats are fighting to make their lives better and not just to help line the pockets of the out of state corporations, we'll win,"
Watch Gray's entire Capitol View interview here.
Turnure will sit down with the chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas, Doyle Webb, during the next episode on June 11.
Capitol View airs Sunday mornings at 8:30 a.m. on KARK-TV directly before NBC's Meet the Press.
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