- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - An Arkansas lawmaker who split with top Republicans over the state moving its primaries next year from May to March said Tuesday he’s left the GOP and is now an independent.

Rep. Nate Bell of Mena announced the decision days after Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed into law the primary change proposal that Bell had opposed during last week’s special legislative session. The Polk County clerk’s office said that Bell changed his voter registration on Monday.

“I believe I can best represent my district and my values as an independent,” Bell said, declining to comment further on the reasons for the change.

Bell has served in the state House since 2011, and announced earlier this year he wouldn’t seek a fourth term in 2016. His party switch means Republicans now hold 63 of the 100 seats in the state House, with Democrats holding 36 seats and Bell the only independent. Republicans hold a majority in both chambers of the Legislature, along with all seven of the state’s constitutional offices.

Bell chairs the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, which took up the primary change legislation. The move had the backing of top Republicans, including Hutchinson and state GOP Chairman Doyle Webb, who argued it would give voters a greater say in who the presidential nominees are.

Bell spoke out against the move, saying it had “anti-family overtones” because it would subject candidates’ families and voters to even longer campaigns.

“We’re about to add several months to that intense scrutiny, and we’re going to put it right over the holiday period when families should be families and not dealing with campaigns,” Bell said last week.

Bell also clashed with some members of his party earlier this year over his proposal to end the state’s practice of commemorating Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King Jr. on the same state holiday. Bell’s proposal - which called for removing Lee from the state holiday - and a similar proposal were rejected by his committee.

Hutchinson said he had previously spoken with Bell about the lawmaker’s plans to become an independent.

“We’ve proven that we can work with Republicans, Democrats and independents to get the job done for Arkansans,” the governor said in a prepared statement. “As he continues to serve his district as an independent, I look forward to working with him and wish him well.”

Webb said he hadn’t spoken with Bell about his decision, but said he was aware of the change.

“I’ve always thought that Nate Bell is a good legislator and represents his constituents very well. This will make no difference in my opinion,” Webb said. “He has been a good legislator and an effective legislator and I wish him well in his political journey.”


Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo



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