In her neck-and-neck race to unseat U.S. Congressman French Hill, Democratic challenger Joyce Elliott said the final push to Election Day will turn on who communicates the best vision on what people value most.
“Hands down, health care is the biggest issue on people’s minds right now,” she said. “Some of that is because they’re afraid they will lose their health care. My opponent in Washington voted over a dozen times to get rid of health care and people are very afraid about that.”
Elliott said voters have echoed these concerns all along the campaign trail, specifically as it applies to cost and pre-existing conditions. She said she’s uniquely qualified to understand these concerns.
“I remind people all the time I really get the preexisting conditions bit,” she said. “I am a walking preexisting condition myself, as a kidney donor.”
The other thing on voters’ minds, Elliott said, was the state of education. As a former teacher, she draws sharp divisions between her understanding of the issues facing education and that of national leaders, including her opponent.
“People are concerned about our schools and whether or not this is going to end up practically being a lost year for our kids because of the pandemic,” she said. “I think we went about this the wrong way. We tried to create a date for them to go back to school; it turns out the pandemic doesn’t care what your date is.
“But if we had used targets as a measurement, I’m convinced we could have done this much better and not put so many people in a dangerous position, especially in our schools. We see now schools are closing down and some of us think we could have done that better.”
Born March 20, 1951, Elliott grew up in the tiny Nevada County town of Willisville, Arkansas. Just the second person of color to graduate from her high school – her older sister was the first – her senior class numbered nine graduates. She said the experience of early integration informed not only her subsequent three decades in the classroom, but inspired her to enter politics afterward.
“I helped to integrate a school when I was 15 years old and let’s just say that was a very tough thing to do,” she said. “I saw the need to have teachers who taught all kids and cared about all kids no matter what their income, their race, their background. I really suffered from not having that during integration and I wanted to be a teacher for every student.
“At the same time, [as a teacher] I saw things that were happening outside of my classroom that affected my students, their families, and I felt politics could really matter in people’s lives. I wanted to go to the state legislature to help change some of those things that would help my students, such helping to start a nationally recognized and number–one–in–the–country pre-K program.”
Elliott said the motivation for seeking national office expands that agenda. She also said her record of bipartisan lawmaking at the state level will not only translate to Congress, but is sorely needed in these divisive times.
“I have worked across the aisle for all of those years I’ve been in the legislature,” she said. “I’ve not been hung up on an idea has to be a Democratic idea or a Republican idea. That’s how we were able to be the first state in the South to expand Medicaid and cover 300,000 more people. A lot of the states in the South still haven’t done it, because they can’t figure out a way to work across party lines.
“I do believe deeply in collaboration. I believe deeply in understanding and empathizing with other people and working across those lines. That’s one of the major reasons I want to go [to Washington]; I want to do everything I can to protect health care if I get there, what I can do to make sure we grow not an adequate education, but a world–class education opportunity for our kids all over the country.”
Elliott said for too long, rancor has held sway over discourse in Congress, preventing the kind of forward-thinking leadership displayed by Arkansas political luminaries John Paul Hammerschmidt, John McClelland and David Pryor, to name a few. This, she says, works to the detriment of small states like Arkansas in particular.
“When you don’t get people in social settings and know about their families, what they care about, what makes them tick, it’s immensely difficult to work with them,” she said. “That’s where we have to start. In Washington, there’s so much focus on division as opposed to what can we do to come together. It sounds simplistic, but it is the case that you don’t get things done by fomenting division.”
As for the campaign itself, Elliott said she enjoys the campaign trail for the interaction it gives her with the electorate. Even though, she confesses, that has taken on a radically different look in 2020.
“When I get to campaign, one of the things I like is getting out and getting to talk to people,” she said. “The biggest change that we’ve had, of course, is COVID; we have to do things either by phone, by Zoom or whatever. That’s a huge change, but we have figured out things to get out and to be among people.
“We started doing what we call drive-in rallies where people show up and I get a chance to walk around to their cars, their pick-up trucks, in some cases motorcycles, and just have conversations. We can have them at a distance and all that. We held one in Little Rock where we used a short-form radio station because we had 500 or so people at that one. It’s fun doing that.”
What’s not been fun is the steady stream of ads painting her as a social radical, which she chalks up to desperation on the part of her opponent.
“I grew up in Willisville, Arkansas, in Southwest Arkansas with 152 people, went through the issue of integrating that school, and I could have had every reason in the world to come out of that with hate,” she said. “But I came out with a very different lesson, what I call a unity tour, for the rest of my life. I start out with the news that there may be all kind of issues between us, but we have to work together. That’s the story of my life.”
“I’m not a sacrificial lamb, but I put myself out there because I believe in Arkansas and I believe things can be better for us in Washington. We don’t have to be so divisive. We can lower health care costs. We can have a fairer tax system. And we can have a world class education in a country that is defined by a justice system that is equal and fair to everybody. We can do this. But we have to have a person committed to uniting, not one who will use division just because that’s a convenient thing to do to get reelected.”
Image courtesy of Joyce Elliott campaign