Over the last decade, Republican candidates have taken a record number of state- and federal-level political offices in Arkansas. This November, Democrat Jared Henderson looks to turn the tide.
The 39-year-old candidate is looking to unseat Arkansas’ Republican governor. And he brings with him some unique experience.
After graduating from the University of Arkansas, Henderson simultaneously earned master’s degrees in business administration and public administrations from Harvard Business School and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He worked for a time as a research scientist and operations manager at NASA, before joining leading business strategy firm McKinsey & Company. Most recently, Henderson served as the executive director of Teach For America.
And now, Henderson’s seeking his next major feat, running as a Democrat in a red state against a popular incumbent governor.
“I think state and local government are still a great way to do a lot of good,” he said. “You have some direct influence over the economy, over education, over the healthcare system. You have a chance to create a lot of opportunity and play a role in helping a lot of people’s lives.
“Our federal politics seem to get a little more dysfunctional by the month,” Henderson added. “But for state and local politics, good people with good ideas can still get in there and do some good. Arkansas – I grew up here, I live here – I love this place. Arkansas has got a history that shows we can do great things.”
But he knows it will be no cakewalk. Defeating an incumbent governor is one thing. Doing it in a state that has shifted heavily to the right is another. He recognizes the challenge and remains hopeful.
“I’m not sure what to make of it,” Henderson said of Arkansas’ partisan shift. “The main thing I take away from it, going into this election, is that it’s possible for a Democrat to get elected to a statewide office. We saw that in Alabama recently. It was a big deal because it hadn’t happened in a generation. It’s going to be a struggle. It’s always a struggle running against an incumbent, almost regardless of their popularity level. But I’m starting with the knowledge that Arkansans, for a fact, will vote for a good Democrat that they meet and like, that they want to see lead.”
Henderson may be new to the political fray, but he brings with him a wealth of knowledge from past experiences.
“I’ve done some very different things for the first 20 years of my career,” Henderson said. “I’ve spent substantial time working in the private sector. I was an operations manager at NASA for a while, that gave me perspective on technology. I spent a lot of time in public education over the years, recruiting and training teachers.
“I’ve also worked and gained experience in different parts of the state,” he added. “I was born, raised and educated in Northwest Arkansas. I live, and my wife owns a medical practice, in Central Arkansas. The last six years, I’ve been working in a few dozen cities in the Delta. I feel like I’ve got a rich and pretty diverse sense of what the opportunities and needs are in different parts of the state.”
Revitalizing the Delta
Having spent significant time working in public education in the Arkansas Delta, Henderson said he recognizes many of the problems facing the region. As much of the state continues to grow and prosper, East Arkansas continues to suffer higher-than-average unemployment, poverty and poor health outcomes. To reverse it, Henderson says, will be tough. But it’s possible.
“There’s no silver bullet, but there are some things I think we can do,” he said. “First, though, we have to realize it’s going to take bold solutions. I don’t think we help the Delta get back on its feet by tinkering around the edges or trying strategies that help things on the margin.”
Improving education in Arkansas, according to Henderson, will go a long way in improving the economic outcomes of the state’s most impoverished region. Improving education, he said, relies on teacher recruitment.
“I’ve been working in education for the last ten years – the last six years in the Delta,” Henderson said. “Every year it gets harder and harder and harder for our schools to find qualified teachers. And I mean minimally qualified teachers, not the excellent ones our kids deserve. It’s going to have to be the cause of a couple governors to help make teaching an attractive, respectable and sustainable profession.
“We’re going to have to put a special emphasis on attracting and retaining teachers to our highest need schools, and that includes the Delta,” he added. “A lot of people think you can’t attract teachers there because there’s not a lot to do. That’s just simply not true. But, you have to create a context, incentives, to get people out there. People growing up in the Delta, even those in poverty, have incredible potential. But they need some of the best educators to bring that out. So, we’re going to have to make that investment.”
Another way the state can help stimulate growth in the Delta, Henderson said, is by making it easier for local residents to start businesses.
“The second thing I would say is, that our current strategy is to try and recruit business from outside the state,” said Henderson. “I think that is perfectly fine. But we need to do more than that, because if you’re not in one of the communities that gets one of these new job centers, we don’t have much for you. But in all these towns, you have smart, industrious people who are willing to take the risk to start a small business. What they don’t have is access to a little capital, the basic training to give them a fighting shot, or access to healthcare while they take that risk.
“We can provide those things and give the people in these communities the opportunity to take some control of their economic destiny,” Henderson added. “It’s not a panacea that solves everything. But it gives them some agency to build things. And it helps unlock more growth when they do get a new business from the outside, because they can build quicker.”
Unlike some candidates he may face in November, if he wins his party’s primary, Henderson applauded the reauthorization of Arkansas Words – the state’s hybrid Medicaid expansion program. Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Mark West has said he would like to see the state transition away from the program; Republican candidate Jan Morgan has said she would end it altogether.
“I’m glad we held on to it this last fiscal session,” said Henderson. “We need to keep holding on to it. Having access to health insurance, no doubt, improves the health outcomes of people. Our rural hospitals have become dependent on it. We’re going to have some hospitals in jeopardy if we scale that back.”
Henderson believes the program is more popular than its opponents let on, especially when polled on its individual components.
“If you take Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, and you poll people on the individual components, they’re very popular,” he said. “Almost everyone supports not allowing insurance companies to discriminate based on pre-existing conditions, for instance. These are things we need to keep and not go backwards on. There are some things, like the individual mandate, that are unpopular. That’s now been removed. But, most people would rather other folks have insurance and pay for their visits to the emergency room rather than have the rest of us pay for it.“
When contemplating a direction on highway funding, Henderson said he looks to consider all options on the table. When allocating resources for the construction and upkeep of state highways, he recognizes the importance of a dedicated fund.
“We’ve got to come up with a real solution,” Henderson said. “Right now, I really do lean towards having dedicated source of funding. Our economy is cyclical. We’re riding the wave now. And when it comes down, we don’t need highway funding competing with education, Medicaid or other things. And, we need more money for this in our rural communities. We have some infrastructure issues.”
An option that has been bandied about in the past is a gas tax. According to Henderson, it may be viable, but it’s too soon to say.
“The appeal of that is that it ties the revenue to the people who are using the highways, which is good from a fairness standpoint,” he said. “I would want to weigh in on that in the context of all of our options. I know quite a bit about our tax code already, but what I don’t know is sector to sector. If we look at goods and services, the different options we have. I’d like to study it more.”
If Henderson knows anything, it’s education. And in improving the state’s educational system, the key, he said, is recruitment.
“In education, we have so many debates. We have adequacy and funding. We have school choice. There are a variety of debates. The central thing that should be 90 percent of our main focus is how we recruit and retain great people to be educators,” said Henderson. “We’ve had a 56 percent drop in the number of people entering teacher prep programs since 2009. That is an incredibly scary fact. We have got to look that squarely in the face and aggressively reverse it. We also have to inspire our best young people to enter this profession. It’s a hard job and it takes talented people to do it well.”
A major part of providing a quality education to Arkansas students is having the resources available to fund teacher recruitment efforts, pre-kindergarten expansion, and more. In order to have those resources available, Henderson said the state must stop cutting taxes for the wealthiest Arkansans.
“I’m glad we provided tax relief to low and middle-income people,” he said. “I do not support cutting taxes for the wealthiest Arkansans, especially given that those folks just got a tax cut from Washington.
“There are so many other ways to invest that money, not just to provide services, but to build the economy,” Henderson added. “We could expand pre-K with that money. We could incentivize teachers with that money. We could strengthen infrastructure and rural broadband. There are so many superior investments for that money.”
Henderson recognizes that the state’s economy has been trending up. But he said excitement should be measured when considered some of Arkansas’ perceived progress.
“It’s good that our unemployment is low,” he said. “We’ve added a lot of jobs over the last year. However, there are two things we have to be realistic about when we celebrate the progress. One is that those gains are really highly concentrated in a few areas. They’re not broadly shared. And two, if you look at the jobs that have been added back, it’s less full-time employment with full benefits and more contract work with less stability. We’re in the gig economy. I think, not just as a state, we’re still coming to terms with what that means. I’m happy to see unemployment low as an Arkansan, but we need to be measured in our excitement and know what the job market really looks like.”
In addressing the state’s economy, Henderson said state leaders need to tackle the skills gap that is keeping a number of workers from the workplace.
“I think there’s a skills gap,” he said. “People see jobs they don’t think they qualify for, or [are] able to compete for. We have to create systems that allow people to train and relearn and reenter the workforce. It’s no exaggeration to say we’re living in the most dynamic, rapid and expansive period of economic change probably ever. If we could take our cellphones back and put them on the table in front of someone in 1990, it’s be a piece of magic. That’s just one example of how our world is changing. Our institutions, education systems, our higher ed.
“I think, we as a state and as a country are struggling to keep up with this,” Henderson added. “Why run for governor? It’s because I see that. The governor gave his state of the state last month. He celebrated the unemployment rate and a few other things, which are good measures of incremental progress. But we need a real vision for where this state is going to be in 25 years. We need some bold solutions. I don’t want Arkansas to settle for incremental, traditional steps, especially now. We need bolder strategies for the future.”
Arkansas, he said, has to be realistic about the evolution of the economy. As economies evolve, the workforce has to evolve with it, while also preparing the next generation of Arkansans for meaningful work.
“A lot of the jobs today are not going to exist in 10 to 12 years. You’ve got so many implications of that. Look at our educational system. We have to prepare some kids to go to college. We have to prepare some of them to connect and be competitive for good, well-paying technical jobs – electricians, plumbers, all these things. We also have to equip kids with fundamental skills – critical thinking, communication, teamwork, all of that. That’ll allow them to compete for jobs that don’t even exist yet.”
In order for Henderson to put his ideas to work, he’ll first have to win over a plurality of Arkansas voters. He knows it could be tough in today’s political climate, where many individuals have shut themselves off from viewpoints of those which they don’t agree. Henderson believes Arkansans are not bound by party, but by good ideas.
“One of Arkansas’ best qualities, politically, has been that we vote for individuals and ideas,” he said. “I would, respectfully, ask people to consider that. Whether it is me or someone else, people will have new, good thoughtful people running as Democrats this year. They may or may not find that they’re the right person to vote for. But they’ll be missing out if they don’t lean in, hear what they have to say and consider their ideas. There are many reasons I’m running, but I believe that Arkansas, and every state, needs at least two good, strong political parties. Monopolies are never good. You need parties to sharpen each other’s ideas, to hold people accountable. American history shows us, over time, that parties change. They become different than they were in the past – for good and bad. We need an electorate that is open to considering alternatives. We’re all weaker when we think all the answers lie in one place or the other.
“My hope, and one of the reasons I’m entering politics: We’re still pretty healthy, as a state, in our politics,” he added. “We still talk to each other and can be civil. But, nationally the trend is going in the opposite direction. I’ve heard people across the spectrum lament that fact. One of the reasons I’m running, and a reason a lot of new people are coming in to politics, is that we want to provide good substance. But we also want to provide a good tone. I spoke to a debate team in Arkadelphia and one of the young people there asked, ‘how will you know at the end of this if you’ve achieved your goals?’ My son is 16 months old. When he’s 16 years old, if I can look him in the eye, and without any reservation, tell him what I did, how I operated and why. What I said, what I stood for. That is my goal. It’s that standard I’m trying to bring in. Politics is too important for good people to lean out of. There’s so much of it that’s turning people off. We talk about millennials and young people not voting anymore. It’s not because they don’t care about the world. It’s because they think politics isn’t a meaningful way to do anything about it. They’ve got reasons for thinking that. We need to lean in and show people that politics is always messy, there’s always some nonsense involved because we’re humans. But it’s important and it can be constructive. And occasionally, it can even be uplifting.”