Thursday, July 2, 2020

Chaos in Phillips County as Democrats Scrabble over Nomination for House District 12 (UPDATE - Democrats Nominate Wilson)

I noticed earlier this week that Rep. Chris Richey officially resigned his position representing House District 12 which includes parts of Phillips and Lincoln County including Helena-West Helena.  Richey was the Democratic nominee following the March primary and a front runner to hold the seat as the incumbent although Republicans are contesting the seat with their nominee Barton-Lexa School District Superintendent David Tollett.

It turns out the the process to replace Richey has gotten extremely chaotic.  Andrew Bagley with local news source Helena World has the scoop.  According to his reporting, three candidates have emerged for the Democrats - Former Helena-West Helena Mayor James F. Valley, Elaine Mayor Michael Cravens, and former State Representative Jimmie L. Wilson.  An eight person delegation elected by the Phillips and Lincoln County Democratic Committees met via conference call on Monday to select one of these three candidate but the convention was abruptly recessed by state Democratic Party Chairman Micheal Gray due to what he described as rules and notice issues.

At first, Grey said the convention would stand at recess until Thursday, July 2 but a media advisory on Wednesday from the DPA now says that the convention will meet via virtual conference on Monday evening, July 6. Bagley has pressed both Gray and party spokesman Jacob Kauffman for more information but both have gone "radio silent."  Bagley writes...

Repeated attempts have been made to reach Gray and Kauffman via both phone and text message.  No calls have been returned and no responses have been received via text message as of this writing.  The situation has left even local leaders perplexed.

When reached Wednesday (July 1) evening, (Phillips Democratic County Chair) Turner said he didn't have any information regarding the reason for the delay.  He said, "I don't have any official reason for the delay.  The Party Chairman has not talked to me."

So what exactly is the problem?  It looks like the Democrats might be having second thoughts about nominating someone convicted of a federal crime.

Wilson - a long time political activist in the delta - is most remembered for representing the Lake View School District in the famous Lake View School District Case that completely changed school funding in Arkansas. As a result, the courts required the state legislature to change their education funding formula to create a more "equitable and adequate" educational system.  It was quite a big deal during the Huckabee administration. Wilson was later reprimanded by the Arkansas Supreme Court on Professional Conduct for misrepresenting hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees associated with the case. According to their website, the Court has taken disciplinary action a dozen times over the years involving suspensions, reprimands, and cautions.

But the biggest problem for Democrats is Wilson's 1990 conviction in the Eastern District of Arkansas for converting property mortgaged or pledged to a farm credit agency, converting public money to personal use.  (18 U.S.C. §§ 641, 658.)  One court filing describes the conviction this way...

In 1981 and 1982, Jimmie L. Wilson borrowed approximately $775,230 from the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) for farm operating expenses.  The loan was secured by an FmHA lien on Wilson's crops.  On August 22, 1990, Wilson pled guilty in the United Stated District Court, Eastern District, to three counts of violating 18 U.S.C. § 658 1 by “knowingly” disposing of soybeans and rice that were mortgaged and pledged to the FmHA, and two counts of violating 18 U.S.C. § 641 2 by “knowingly” taking money from a Department of Agriculture bank account and using it for unapproved purposes.  For these crimes, Wilson was sentenced to four and one-half months in prison and three years of probation.  The United States District Court also suspended Wilson's license to practice law in the federal courts until final disposition of the disciplinary actions taken against him.

But alas, true to the good old boy political system of the past, President Bill Clinton came through for Wilson issuing a Presidential Pardon to him on January 20, 2001 just hours before leaving office. 

So - and I am just guessing here since the DPA is not talking - that the sudden delay in the process involves a bit of heartburn in nominating someone convicted of a federal crime for the state legislative seat.  There is a serious question as to if Wilson will be able to actually hold the office if elected as the state constitution states in Article 5, Section 9: "No person convicted of embezzlement of public money, bribery, forgery, or other infamous crime is eligible to the General Assembly or capable of holding any office of trust or profit in this state." 

Perhaps the DPA is researching whether the Clinton pardon is enough to nullify this constitutional disqualification.  Perhaps they are wondering if they want to take this chance.  Or perhaps it is something completely different.  I don't know.

It would be nice if they would tell us what is going on before the nominee is selected by this eight delegate panel.  You know - transparency and all that.

But meanwhile with the Republican nomination securely in hand David Tollett weighs in. 

"More delays," posted Tollett to Facebook. "The party has had 3 full months of notice that their candidate was resigning and they keep delaying because of 'procedural issues.' Is this who you want representing district 12?"

It will be interesting to watch this one play out.  Keep in eye on Andrew Bagley and The Helena World on Twitter for more on the ground reporting.

UPDATE -  A tipster sends along the memo below from the Democratic Party of Arkansas to the delegates of nominating convention ahead of the planned meeting tonight.  Surprise - there is yet another delay.  The memo from Gray explains that he is delaying the convention until July 13 as they are "exploring legal issues have arisen around potential candidates for House District 12."

What issues you ask?  Great question.  Gray explains...

"In 2017, the Arkansas Constitution was amended to prevent anyone convicted of an 'infamous crime' to be allowed to hold office....After further research, attorneys have found that a pardon does not overcome this amendment.

There are legal arguments on many sides, and there is the potential that someone could file a lawsuit to challenge our nominee. If that were to happen, the DPA would certainly fight to ensure that the person that you, the delegates chose, remained on the ballot.  I simply wanted you to have all the facts and an understanding of why we have delayed." 

Although Gray does not mention Wilson by name in the memo, it is obviously that is who he is referring to.  I still have not heard directly from Gray on my post but I think this pretty much confirms what I have speculated - the convention is being delayed by the state party to try to prevent the local delegates from nominating someone convicted of a federal crime.

UPDATE II - Another bit of news on this.  Gov. Hutchinson issued a proclamation today setting the special election to fill the remainder of Rep. Chris Richey's term.  Richey official resigned on June 30 after the special election.  The proclamation sets the primary date for August 11, runoff (if needed) for September 8, and general election for November 3 to match up with the main general election day.

Keep in mind this is a different election that the nomination convention currently underway which is to set the Democratic nominee for the full upcoming term.  It is necessary due to a "vacancy in nomination" where Richey as the Democratic nominee is no longer eligible to be their nominee.

UPDATE III - The Republican nominee for the full term David Tollett tells me that he plans to file for the special election to fill the remaining term as well.  What will the Democrats do?  I don't even think they know that yet.  Stay tuned.

UPDATE IV - July 13 - The long waited special convention finally met on Monday evening.  All three candidates addressed the eight delegates before voting began.

"If you don't know me by now, you will never know me," said Wilson quoting from the song in his closing arguements.

In the end, it was enough to persuade five of the eight delegates to vote for him with the other three voting for Valley.

The question now is can Wilson manage to stay on the ballot.  The memo from the DPA - his own party - is exhibit A as to why this is problematic.   As DPA Chairman Gray points out anyone convicted of an "infamous crime" is prevent from holding office and - in his view - a pardon does not overcome this.

And Arkansas Republicans have promised a court challenge if the DPA does not handle this on there own.

"If the Democratic Party of Arkansas fails to take action and remove this convicted felon criminal from the ballot, the Republican Party of Arkansas will take the necessary action,"  Republican Party of Arkansas chairman Doyle Webb tells the Tolbert Report.

This is bad news for Democrats.  House District 12 - considered a reliably safe Democrat district - is now likely to flip to the GOP.

"We will be looking into the legitimacy of the democratic candidate for district 12," Republican challenger David Tollett adds. "We want the best representation for all of our people. Our district deserves a quality representative who exemplifies integrity and who can provide solutions to the problems our people face. I look forward to this race and to having real conversations about what I can do to best support our great district. This race is about people and not parties or politics."

And Democrats are already fighting back...

"Jimmie Wilson is well respected across the Delta for his leadership and as a Civil Rights advocate. The Democratic Party of Arkansas stands firmly behind our nominee, who was duly elected by the voters of the district," said DPA Chairman Michael John Gray in a press release. "Mr. Wilson has previously served in the Arkansas Legislature and has committed no wrong doing that prevents him from continuing to serve his community. If the Republican Party tries to steal this election in a majority African-American district, shame on them. We should let voters decide who represents them, not courts." 

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