- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2000

CAMDEN, Ark. A tragic plant-closing in this financially strapped, tiny south Arkansas town might afford incumbent Republican Rep. Jay Dickey the momentum to eke out a victory for his fifth term over Democrat challenger Mike Ross.

Some say Mr. Dickey's forceful appearance on the scene might have impressed enough south Arkansas voters to give him the edge in a tight battle for Arkansas' 4th District Congressional seat.

A few days ago International Paper Co. (IP) announced it planned to shut down its Camden plant a paper mill that has operated here for 70 years throwing 580 employees out of work. IP is by far the No. 1 employer in this town of about 15,000.

Mr. Dickey's opponent, Mr. Ross, who is the current state senator representing Camden, said he would work with Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, state industrial development leaders, and officials in Ouachita County to see if new jobs could be created. He promised his full support.

But it was Mr. Dickey who moved in impressively last week, castigating the paper company for its lack of loyalty and promising stunned Camden leaders federal help.

"It's not fair," said the congressman. "This facility has always made its quotas, and these employees have been loyal, as well as tremendous workers. This is a devastating blow to this area."

Many of the IP employees were among the highest wage-earners in Camden, where the median annual income is $19,682 and only 28 families have incomes of over $150,000.

Mr. Dickey met with Camden Mayor Chris Claybaker, Ouachita County Judge Mike Hesterly and IP officials Monday before staging a press conference at which he promised all the influence he could muster. He said the paper company would be asked to give $500,000 in severance and donate some prime land it held here to try to help the locals lure other business.

"The next move is up to them," he said.

Later that same day, Mr. Dickey visited with about 60 rural firefighters in East Camden and promised them federal money for equipment, schooling and fire prevention, he told them, because of his membership on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

"This guy has come through for us time and again," said Bill Whitely, a volunteer fireman from a small town south of here. "I hope they remember him on Election Day."

Mr. Ross was livid as Mr. Dickey got heavy media play last week, but there was little he could do except say that Mr. Dickey was playing Santa Claus because he knew he was behind in the polls.

"He's been traveling the district, acting like it's Christmas morning," said Mr. Ross, "handing out federal money."

"I'm glad the district is finally getting that money," he added, "but I just regret that it took me being his opponent and eight years for it finally to come through."

Mr. Ross said he felt "the people see through that all this dropping here in the last 20 days of the campaign."

The campaign has been a close and somewhat frenetic one since June when Mr. Ross, 39, defeated former TV consumer reporter Dwayne Graham in a runoff for the Democratic nomination. Mr. Dickey, who came in with a fat campaign kitty and had no primary opponent, did not actively campaign until then.

Since then, there have been few public forums, though both sides claimed they wanted a series of debates. Both candidates have given myriad reasons why they could not participate in such forums.

And there have been polls, mostly private. Employees of both campaigns claim their respective leaders are ahead in the polls, but they will not release results.

The closest thing to a statement came Wednesday night, when Dickey aide Rob Johnson told The Washington Times that the most recent poll showed the two candidates neck and neck, both under 50 percent. But he added, "We're ahead."

"It's going to be very close, but I'm confident we will win," said the Democrat challenger.

The race, figured to be razor-close and one that both national parties want to win badly as they battle to gain control of Congress, has been inundated with tons of money more money than this district has ever seen before. Some claim as much as $8 million might be spent by Nov. 7.

"It's ridiculous," said Mr. Ross. "And unbelievable and unfortunate." He predicted his campaign would spend $2 million, Mr. Dickey at least $4 million. "Isn't it unbelievable that we would spend $2 million and be outspent 2 to 1?"

Mr. Dickey, 60, has won four straight times in this relatively poor district, becoming the first Republican in more than a century to do so. The district still leans more Democratic than Republican, but less so than before.

Mr. Dickey has more than the largesse of Republican Appropriations Committee congressmen and Republicans nationwide to thank for what is considered a slim but steady lead here.

Though he is considered "quirky" by many of his supporters and even "a bit crazy" by others (The Democrat-Gazette called him "Crazy Jay" as recently as Oct. 8), Mr. Dickey has an enviable record of adroitly handling constituents' problems. He flies home every weekend so he can be available for his flock.

A friendly, some say "spacey," kind of politician who sometimes mangles the English language, Mr. Dickey seems to understand how to move and function well within the varied cliques in south Arkansas. Often, he shows up with his 12-year-old Weimaraner, Romy, loping along at his heels, the tall campaigner looking more like Ichabod Crane than a very serious politician.

"Jay will fool you," said Ken Stephens, a freight loader in Sheridan last week. "He comes on country, a grin, a semi-shuffle and all that, but when you talk to him, you find the man knows everything that is going on and has good ideas."

With the dearth of face-to-face exchange, much of the rhetoric has become strained and contentious and the TV ads a heavier barrage than ever seen before in these parts have often been seen as downright mean.

Holly Ross, wife of the Democratic candidate, last week asked Mr. Dickey to quit lying and slandering her and her husband. She accused the Republican of "waging the most negative personal attacks against my husband that I have ever heard in my life. His untruthful attacks have upset me so much that I can't sleep at night. How dare he attack my reputation as a community pharmacist with such slanderous remarks."

Mrs. Ross, who with her husband owns a small pharmacy in Prescott, a few miles west of here, recently was caught up in the give-and-take over both candidates' campaign promises to provide seniors lower prescriptions.

A few days ago Mr. Dickey publicly asked the Ross campaign to release a list of prices at Holly's Health Mart for 20 prescription drugs frequently used by seniors. A statement from the Dickey campaign said that people in the district had told the congressman "they believe Mr. Ross has become a millionaire because he charges outrageous prices for drugs sold to senior citizens."

The Ross campaign complained and contacted the head of the Arkansas Pharmacists' Association for comment. Richard Beck, the group's CEO, refused to comment, but then he personally contacted the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the state's leading daily newspaper.

"Dickey's gone too far," said Mr. Beck to a Democrat-Gazette reporter. He said many pharmacists were backing the Ross candidacy because they knew Mrs. Ross, but none of them would want their prices published because it would offer an unfair advantage to their competitors.

Mr. Beck also told the reporter that the Dickey campaign had tried to paint contributions to Mr. Ross from pharmacists as though they were contributions from drug manufacturing firms, who hold somewhat different views from pharmacists on some issues in the campaign.

Dickey spokesmen Rob Harris and Jim Harris say Mr. Ross' ads have been equally harsh and unfair to Mr. Dickey.

"Has she tried to stop her husband's negative TV ads because she thought about Jay's grandchildren seeing them?" chided Mr. Harris about the Holly Ross press release.

Several pork-barrel windfalls have brought representatives of both parties to the district to praise their particular candidates.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater criticized Mr. Dickey, saying the congressman "took far too much credit" for the $234 million earmarked for state highway projects under legislation passed three weeks ago.

"I am not taking away from Jay Dickey's efforts," said Mr. Slater, "but it's not anything more than the rest of the delegation has done." Arkansas has five other congressmen, all of whom have lobbied hard for highway money.

"There's one person responsible for this $94 million appropriation for I-49, and that's Jay Dickey," countered 3rd District Republican congressman Asa Hutchinson to a Texarkana audience Oct. 16. That money will be utilized in finishing I-49 development from Texarkana south to the Louisiana line.

Mr. Dickey traveled to Texarkana last week to bask in the pleasure of his highway funds victory.

"I'm going to let you all in on a military secret and tell you how I got this money," he told a large crowd of well-wishers. "I saw how the $100 million appropriation I got for the east side of Arkansas helped them so much, so I told them I wanted $100 million for the west side. Highway dollars are the hardest to get. It was the only $100 million appropriation in the nation."

While the close George W. Bush-Al Gore race might determine the outcome of many congressional contests next month, few expect that to be a strong factor here.

"In 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton carried this district strongly," said Mr. Johnson, the Dickey aide, "and Mr. Dickey won easily."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide