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Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor backs away from minimum wage increase

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By David Roberts

FEBRUARY 14, 2014

“It’s not you, it’s me.”

“I’ve changed.”

“You deserve better.”

“Yes, I love you but you deserve to be with someone who can be in love with you.”

These words are often used when someone leaves their relationship. I highly doubt anyone heard them this last week when several leaders publicly voiced opposition to a minimum wage increase, an issue that has wide support from all labor organizations.  In honor of Valentine’s Day and my increasing cynicism towards a whole lot of things this time of year.  I present: the Valentine’s Day Edition.

Last week, I received a statement regarding an interview with Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor, referencing a statement he made about the minimum wage increase.  Despite having occasional policy differences or clashing opinions with Senator Pryor, he’s an individual for whom I have deep admiration and I respect his opinions, even when they differ from my own.  I opened the email being very interested in what Pryor had said considering he had endorsed the increase a few months prior even publicly criticizing his opponent, Congressman Tom Cotton for opposing the federal increase.

“I know $10.10 still isn’t a whole lot of money, but I think it’s too much, too fast,” said Pryor in his interview from the Capital, “I’m not supportive of that.”

Upon reading this initial quote, I became temporarily paralyzed with a wave of anxiety and disbelief. Full disclosure: there was a small moment in which I contemplated simply not reading any further.  I begrudgingly began to read further.

“We must ensure that hard work earns a fair paycheck for every Arkansan, and I’ll continue to be a reliable voice for a strong minimum wage, because standing up for Arkansas families is the responsible thing to do,” Pryor continued.

Last Thursday the Huffington Post reached out to Senator Pryor’s campaign regarding how Pryor’s stance on the federal minimum wage differs from Cotton’s.  Campaign spokesman Erik Dorey sent the following statement:

“Mark is the only candidate in this race that supports raising the minimum wage for hardworking Arkansans,” Dorey said. “Given that Arkansas’ minimum wage is well below the federal level, Mark came to the conclusion after listening closely to folks here that raising it at the state level is the best first step for Arkansans.”

A concept Mark Pryor fails to grasp is that voters don’t always have to be voting against something for them to show up and cast their ballots. It’s obvious that by large margins, the people of Arkansas have very little faith in President Obama but this cycle isn’t going to be another 2010.  Today’s Arkansas voter is more in-tune to a post-Citizens-United shady climate of political spending.

If Pryor had simply responded with something similar to Dorey’s statement to HuffPo, or stated that ‘although he does indeed support a federal increase, the figure of $10.10 might not be appropriate for the folks he represents.’  Simply explaining that average income in his home state is lower than national average.  Forcing an increase that would hurt business and causes economic problems in Arkansas is something that he obviously would not support.

I recall how this episode played out for former US Senator Blanche Lincoln who chaired the Agriculture Committee in the US Senate.  As irony would have it, it has almost been exactly four years since Senator Lincoln opposed card-check; key legislation that labor knew they needed badly.  When Lincoln publicly voiced opposition to the measure labor threatened to skip endorsement.  Lincoln attempted to call their bluff and labor unions thereby skipped endorsement of the Arkansas senator, even playing in the primary challenge from former Arkansas Lt. Governor Bill Halter.  This type of environment showcase infamous political discourse with birth of the “Dollar Bill Halter” campaign and the “Big Banks for Blanche” group entered stage-right.

All routes by which Pryor could add extra points to the margins either include the most robust field program and volunteer structure in Arkansas history and/or active support, financing and boots on the group from organized labor unions who have existing political infrastructure in the state, despite efforts to squash them out.  Having labor as a strong ally and union members actively turning out voters will increase Pryor’s margins by a few points at minimum – every point will matter.

This of course, is not to say that labor would have made the difference in Lincoln’s race or will in Pryor’s.  Aside from additional financing and grassroots infrastructure, simply acquiring the perception that you stand with the American worker is a message that resonates with everyone outside of the top 1% earners.  Many variables will decide this particular election and the candidate who wins will have taken the points here and there, when they could get them.  Elections come down to simple math, whoever receives the most votes, wins.  If Pryor would’ve taken a different route instead of retreat it would resonate in 3 beneficial ways:  1) it would limit frustration within Pryor’s own base and eventually add to his margins.  2) It would have kept from isolating the independents in the state, a growing number of voters in Arkansas. 3) It would give him the opportunity to showcase his support of the American worker.  To me, showing that you will stand with the American worker is essential, regardless of political benefit.

Pryor could have worded his statement differently and still been perceived as ‘supportive’ without giving a specific number regarding how much the minimum wage increase should be. Unfortunately, once Obama became more involved and after its mention in the 2014 state of the union, Pryor assumed he had to flee the issue to keep from supplying ammunition to independent expenditures that drop millions in their effort to associate the senator with Barack Obama. This tactic seems risky as it simply creates additional isolation of a group, drop in favorability beyond the ‘Obama Effect,’ which the senators campaign has been experiencing in full force.  I suppose he envisioned the proceeding attack ads that would follow falsely portraying him as an Obama-Democrat and ‘wrong for Arkansas.’  What Pryor seems to fail to understand is that the ads will air regardless; outsiders have and will continue to spend millions tying him to Obama regardless of any future positions. By retreating, even somewhat, from previous support of any issue does damage beyond  that of the Arkansas ‘Obama Effect.’

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stated it best, “We will stand on principle or we won’t stand at all.”  A fitting quote from someone referred to as the “Iron Lady”.  Who knows, it might be possible one day to once again cast a vote not against someone, or against a single position and instead in favor of a candidate and the overall good they envision. I can’t help but think that the people of Arkansas would ultimately embrace this type of politician.  I can’t help but believe that the single-issue voter wasn’t a part of the founder’s vision when they attempted to create a lasting government, a government for and by the people.

Political dollars opposing Pryor want to make this election just about Barack Obama.  They are driven by a justifiable assumption that once enough has been spent to associate a politician with another unpopular or controversial politician, when either is on the ballot voters will turn against them.  This is certainly a tactic that still thrives in politics today but its logic is flawed in many ways and it undermines the very purpose of democracy. Mark Pryor can’t win this election by being President Obama’s best friend and golfing buddy. That much has always been clear. The alternative, him appearing the antithesis of Obama, can cost him reelection as well.  There will come a time when voters are able to see a candidate as simply ‘who they are’. They cut through the sound bites, the spin, distortions and lies and judge their leader based on a record and their vision. When this time comes, it shall reveal the true Mark Pryor: the native son, the Fayetteville-born, hog-calling, public servant, their senior Senator, Mark Lunsford Pryor. A man who’s outlook wasn’t shaped or defined by Barack Obama or anyone in DC.  It was born right there in Arkansas and molded by his father, the state’s former US Senator and Governor.  David Pryor taught his son right from wrong and instilled in him an unparalleled deep sense of responsibility in public service.  I sincerely hope Arkansans reach this realization before November 2014.

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