Longtime Clinton ally wants to be new ‘New Dem’ in Ark.
© flickr/johntaylor/jbtaylor

A longtime Clinton ally is looking to reclaim southwest Arkansas’s congressional seat for the Democrats.

Former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt (D) is running for Rep. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonTim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls Opposition to refugees echoes one of America's most shameful moments White House defends CDC outreach to teachers union MORE’s (R-Ark.) open seat, positioning himself as a centrist deal-maker in the mold of his old friend, former President Bill Clinton.


But the Razorback State’s politics have rapidly shifted since the Clinton heydey. In the deeply red state, he’ll need to convince voters he’s the type of “New Democrat” Clinton ran as in his first bids for office in order to win a conservative district that’s moved hard away from his party in recent years.

“It doesn’t seem like we have statesmen anymore on [Capitol Hill.] Hopefully I can bring some common-sense solutions to the problems that we’re facing,” he told The Hill Wednesday morning during an interview in Washington, D.C. “It’s gotten to the point where it’s not about people, it’s about politics. And that’s sad. I’ve been in crisis management for 30 years. I think I can bring a strong voice to help.”

Witt, 70, has known the Clintons for decades. A former judge in Yell County, he was an early supporter of the former president’s political career. When Clinton became governor in the 1980s, he selected Witt to run the state’s emergency response program.

When he was elected president, he brought Witt to Washington to clean up FEMA, which, at the time, faced major problems.

“I’ve known him since he was 27 years old. We go back a long way. We worked together, and we’ve been friends for many, many years,” Witt said.

He said Clinton called him last year to catch up and “got very excited” when Witt said he was thinking about a run for Congress.

The former president has since held a handful of fundraisers in the state for Witt, who had $300,000 in the bank as of April.

Even with the former president’s help, Witt faces a tough race. The district he’s hoping to represent gave President Obama just 36 percent of its vote in 2012, a lower mark than nearly any district held by a House Democrat. Arkansas state Rep. Bruce Westerman (R) and businessman Tommy Moll (R) are squaring off in the GOP primary for the seat.

And while he’s embracing the state’s native son, Witt is looking to put plenty of distance between himself and the current president.

“I’m a pretty independent Democrat,” he said. “All the years I worked up here, I worked very bipartisan. I didn’t get involved in politics at all. I just think that now’s a good time to try to have a caucus like the Blue Dogs, or whatever it may be, to be able to have a stronger voice, get things done and make things happen. Right now, it’s kind of a standoff.”

The Democrat’s social positions would put him on the more conservative end of his party’s spectrum too. Witt said he opposes legal abortion, except in cases of rape, incest and the mother’s health, and believes marriage is between a man and a woman and that the definition of marriage should be decided by the states.

Witt backed Cotton, a longtime family friend whose parents’ farm borders his property, in 2012. But he’s strongly supporting Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) against Cotton this year in their bitter Senate race.

“His dad and mom supported me all those years I ran for county judge. I’ve known Tom since he was born, watched him play basketball in high school. I care a lot about his family; his dad and me deer-hunted for 13 years,” he said. “But I disagreed with him when he voted against the farm bill, twice. Am I happy how he votes? No.”

Unlike Pryor, Witt says he would have voted against ObamaCare, though he says the law should be fixed, rather than repealed. A top priority for Witt is getting the national debt under control. He said he supports immigration reform that would allow a path for citizenship for immigrants here illegally, as long as it was coupled with strong border protections.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has Witt’s district on its “Emerging Races” list in its Red to Blue program, which consists of races currently considered second-tier. Strategists in both parties say Witt is running a strong race but faces an uphill climb in a tough district and what looks like a tough year for Democrats.

“James Lee Witt is on track to put this seat in play because he is exactly the type of problem-solving leader Arkansas needs to strengthen the middle class and clean up the disaster in Washington,” said DCCC spokesman David Bergstein.

But Republicans say they’re confident the state they started to turn red in the 2010 tidal wave will stay that way.

“Regardless of whatever kind of Kool-Aid Washington Democrats are drinking this week, Arkansas’ 4th District is solid Republican,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Katie Prill said. “With Tom Cotton at the top of the ticket, the folks in the district have even more reason to come out and vote Republican in November.”