As Clarke Tucker drove through a city once dominated by Bill Clinton, he signaled he was ready to move on.
Not from Little Rock or the congressional campaign he was arduously waging against Republican Rep. French Hill, but from the Clintons all together.
“They are part of history, and it is great obviously,” the Democratic candidate said of Bill and Hillary Clinton as he drove through a city where the moniker is omnipresent. “But at the same time, we are trying to progress and move forward as a state, and they are not an active part of that. So, people are kind of ready to move on.”
Tucker, a 37-year old congressional candidate who national Democrats see as a rising star, may represent Arkansas Democrats’ best chance to regain a foothold in a state they once commanded. The race could hinge on Tucker’s attempts to court African American voters, a strategy that has been key to the Democratic Party’s success in other races in the deep-red South.
Tucker is a moderate Democrat out of step with the party’s far left reaches, but he has staked the campaign on a personal health care message, regularly speaking candidly with voters about his own bladder cancer diagnosis in 2017.
“It just gives you a new perspective on life,” Tucker said of his diagnosis, “on what is important and what is not important.”
Unlike many of his predecessors, Tucker — an introverted but engaging candidate, is untethered to the Clintons and seemingly fine with it.
“We need new blood,” he said.
The candidate hasn’t personally reached out to either Clinton for campaign help, but one of his top consultants — Robert McLarty, a relative of Bill Clinton’s first chief of staff Mack McLarty — did reach out to the Clintons for their assistance, according to sources familiar with the request. Tucker, who is waging a campaign pledging to vote against House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, was also not among the roughly two dozen candidates Hillary Clinton’s political group donated to earlier this year.
Spokesmen for Hillary and Bill Clinton declined to comment for the story.
While Tucker lauds the couple’s importance to the state and fondly remembers being in front of the Old State House in 1992 to watch Bill Clinton’s presidential acceptance speech, he also laments being aware of the President’s “stuff”, does not cite the former governor among his political idols and criticizes Clinton’s backing of the 1993 crime bill, a plan that the former President has admitted was a mistake because it led to mass incarceration.
And aides inside Tucker’s campaign are even more blunt: Any help from Bill Clinton, said one Democrat, would be a net negative. And any help from Hillary Clinton, a Democrat who has long had a complicated relationship with the state she lived in for two decades, could hurt even more.
This tension gets to a larger issue in a state that has largely cast Democrats out of power over the last six years. Bill and Hillary Clinton, while once incredibly popular in Arkansas, are now a political liability outside the Democratic confines of Little Rock, making it hard for someone like Tucker to embrace the couple.
But Tucker isn’t alone in distancing himself for national leaders — and the predicament is bipartisan.
Hill, Tucker’s wonky but affable opponent who has represented the district since 2015, has a similarly complicated relationship with President Donald Trump. While he has stood by the President at times in Washington, he wants little to do with him as he battles Tucker.
Asked what he wold tell Trump if the president offered to rally for him in Arkansas, Hill was blunt as he enjoyed coffee at a local Waffle House: How about Pence?
“I’d say I’m going to invite the Vice President (Mike Pence),” Hill said he would tell the President. “I think the Vice President is somebody who I think fits the personality of this district.”
Possibly realizing what he was saying, Hill added, “President Trump fits a big part of it, too, but I just think the VP is somebody who embodies sort of the economic message, the national security message, the faith message, all of which I hear about when I am in this district.”
Hill, in a sign of confidence, concluded by saying he believed Trump should be focused on “big races where there is either more at risk… and this race is not in that kind of political situation.”
The ‘critical’ African American vote
Both Hill and Tucker believe African American voters, who make up roughly 20% of the district’s electorate, could decide the race. But it’s Tucker who knows he can’t win without them.
“They are critical. Critical in the district and therefore critical to the campaign,” Tucker said after a Saturday full of campaigning in African American neighborhoods around Little Rock.
And Tucker is taking no chances. His campaign enlisted Rep. John Lewis, a Civil Rights icon, to stump for Tucker at black churches on Sunday, an experience that Tucker was visibly moved by.
“We are making a conscience effort to be out in the community and show African American voters here that they are an important part of my hopes and dreams for this part of the state,” Tucker said after he visited Arkansas Beauty College to meet with instructors and students.
Tucker isn’t a commanding presence. He proudly calls himself an introvert — “I just don’t like being the center of attention,” he said — but is confident in who he is. When Keith Rancifer, a longtime African American field organizer in Little Rock suggested he walk into the beauty school and boisterously announce his presence, Tucker was unmoved.
“That’s not me,” he said, deciding to ignore the advice and quietly make his way around the expansive room with little fanfare.
Bill Clinton he is not, but the beauticians in training loved it.
“I think that African Americans are on guard with the temperature of our country nowadays,” said Gwendolyn Midbleton, the campus president of the school. “We are wanting someone who is going to be true and authentic.”
Lewis, who spoke with Tucker at two churches and a boisterous rally at Philander Smith College, implored voters like Midbleton to stand with the young candidate.
“It’s good to be here with a young man, a young brother, a wonderful man, Clarke Tucker,” he said at St. John Baptist Church to applause. “I have been in Washington for almost 30 years. We need help. We need a lot of help.”
Lewis’ call for help in Congress was a subtle rebuke to Hill, a Republican that has worked directly with the Civil Rights leader in Congress. Hill shook off Lewis’ trip to Arkansas and admitted that he doesn’t expect to pull in much of the black voter in November.
“I compete for all the votes,” Hill said. “With that said, I don’t win a large percentage of the African American vote. I work for it. I try to earn it. And I will continue to try to do that.”
He added: “I think I have taken the steps… to make the case to African American voters that they should diversify their political participation and they should support Republican candidates who are working for the community, the entire community.”
Pushing the rock up the hill
Tucker rejects the idea that he, like some white politicians, needed time on the campaign trail to learn how to relate to African American voters.
His reasoning: He spent four years at Central High, the famed Little Rock high school that famously desegregated in 1957. Tucker was the class president his senior year and believes that experience working with the school’s diverse population, along with his time intersecting with the Little Rock Nine, the nine African American students who first desegregated, as foundational to his ability to reach black voters.
“I have a different skin tone… but I feel like these are my people and that is who I want to represent in Congress,” Tucker said. “I feel very comfortable and passionate about representing these communities.”
Tucker would go on to study at Harvard — he was in the same class as Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner — and then got his law degree at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Those close to Tucker said it always seemed like he wanted to get into politics, and he did in 2014 when he successfully ran to represent part of Little Rock in the Arkansas legislature.
Tucker’s quick rise at a young age has state Democrats hopeful about his future, but as losses for Democrats stack up in Arkansas, some are left asking whether there will be statewide or federal positions for a candidate like him.
That negativity is apparent in even brief conversations with Democrats in Little Rock, including Elizabeth Eckford, one of the eight surviving Little Rock Nine, the first nine African American students who enrolled Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
While she has endorsed Tucker and has appeared at campaign events with him, she was blunt about his long odds of winning in an interview.
“I think it is something that will prepare him for opportunities in the future and it is giving people an alternative,” she said. “But he has got an uphill battle.”
She paused and tried to recall the story of Sisyphus, the character from Greek mythology who is forced to push a boulder up a hill without every getting to the top.
“Who is that person in mythology who is pushing this globe up the hill,” she asked. “I think he has a similar story.”
She added: “Clarke will be eventually win. But this is going to be an uphill struggle.”