Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln was never supposed to be vulnerable to a challenge from the left. Conventional wisdom told us that as an incumbent from a conservative state (Barack Obama took just 39 percent of the vote in Arkansas in 2008) she was vulnerable only from the right. It told us that in a state dominated by Tyson Foods and Wal-Mart, forty-ninth out of fifty in union density, corporate dollars would drown out working people's voices.
But on Primary Day, Lincoln pulled out a narrow win over Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter in an election that was fought on issues of jobs, healthcare and basic environmental regulations.
This election transcended traditional left-right politics, marking an uprising against corporate control of government. Yes, it was an incomplete uprising, to be sure, but look at it this way: a lieutenant governor unpopular with his state's political establishment and supported by unions, environmental groups and the netroots came within a few points of defeating a powerful incumbent senator supported by two presidents (one of them a former governor of the state) and the US Chamber of Commerce.
Arkansas voters have had the opportunity to see up close the effects of a government controlled by corporate interests. Blanche Lincoln has served her state's major corporations well. She is often called the "senator from Wal-Mart," and according to the Des Moines Register, "Lincoln is as vigorous a proponent for large farms and livestock interests (think Arkansas-based Tyson Foods) as there is in Congress."
As chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, Lincoln has been in a position to champion Tyson and other agribusiness interests, often at the expense of family farms. Meanwhile, her staff have swung through the revolving door between Capitol Hill and corporate lobbying, with a former chief of staff going to Wal-Mart to lobby against the Employee Free Choice Act. Lincoln has been handsomely rewarded, with both Tyson and Wal-Mart ranking among her top campaign contributors. But the people of Arkansas are not doing well. The state ranks second in people living below the poverty level, fifth in infant mortality, and forty-ninth in percentage of adults holding bachelor's degrees.
Over the past year and a half, Arkansans have seen Lincoln turn her back on measures that would have improved their lives to support corporate interests instead. Twenty-five thousand Working America members and their neighbors sent handwritten letters to Lincoln over the last year imploring her to support job rights and real health care reform. But Lincoln was deaf to those pleas, repeatedly standing with Republicans to block needed legislation.
When Lincoln disappointed our members, we went back to their neighborhoods to talk about the election.
In the course of the twelve-week primary and run-off campaigns, Working America organizers had 150,000 conversations with voters in twenty-seven cities and seventeen counties. People were angry that Lincoln had voted to send 3.4 million jobs overseas and continues to champion corporate outsourcers—Wal-Mart has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of NAFTA and other antiworker trade agreements. She capitulated to insurance companies on healthcare reform and had repeatedly voted to benefit the big banks.
Despite all the talk of Arkansas conservatism, the appeal of a progressive economic populist message was unmistakable. Then, under pressure during the election, where did Blanche Lincoln go? She championed financial reform to show she wasn't owned by Wall Street, inserting strong derivatives reform into the legislation.
Politicians have long done the bidding of corporate lobbyists, but there's an even longer tradition of working people fighting back against the powerful. Working America organizer Corey Spangler is a living example. Corey is only 21, but he represents generations of struggle against corporate greed in Arkansas. He was raised by his great-grandparents on a small chicken farm, raising chickens for a company that would eventually be absorbed by Tyson. In the 1970s, Corey's great-grandfather organized the farmers in his area to start a union, which went on strike. But the strike was broken. After a year, farmers couldn't hold out any longer and one by one returned to the arrangements they had been protesting. Corey's great-grandfather held out for another year, by himself. But eventually, even he had no choice but to go back. Years later, under Tyson, he found himself losing money at chicken farming.
Corey says, “Before this run-in with big business, my great-grandfather would tell everyone that ‘you can fight City Hall.' But after he gave into the chicken industry he was broken in a way, he gave up that fighting spirit. I do this work, and specifically want to see Blanche Lincoln out of office, because she claims that she's looking out for the small farmer, but she's been in cahoots with Tyson and other big agribusiness that's been doing these sorts of things to small Arkansas farm families for years." Corey knows the difference between corporate interests and the public interest. Teaching that to politicians is what the 2012 elections should be all about.