STUTTGART — The large pickup truck pulls into the parking lot of the Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie and Republican Congressman Rick Crawford gets out from the passenger side.
Quickly he moves toward two men walking down a sidewalk to the entrance of the museum. It’s a cool, sunny day in this small Delta town that is the home of Riceland Foods and world famous for duck hunting.
“Good morning,” the freshman congressman says as he shakes hands with Glenn Larsen and J.W. McCollum before another man walks up to say hello.
Crawford, who earlier in the day had dropped off a load of surplus books from the Library of Congress to the city library, chats briefly with the two men before being called away by a congressional aide.
Larsen, pastor of Emmanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church, and McCollum, a World War II-era veteran and a retired businessman, watch the congressman for a few seconds and then turn and walk into the museum to attend a luncheon where Crawford will be the guest speaker.
Crawford, a Jonesboro resident, was elected in 2010 as the first Republican to represent eastern Arkansas in Congress since Reconstruction. He is seeking re-election in the 1st District and faces Democrat Scott Ellington of Jonesboro in the Nov. 6 general election. Ellington is the 2nd Judicial District prosecutor.
Also running for the 1st District seat are Green Party candidate Jacob Holloway of Jonesboro and Libertarian Party candidate Jessica Paxton of Marion.
Inside the museum, Crawford shakes hands and chats with several old friends and supporters, as well as with a few people who say they are still not sure who they will vote for in the 1st District congressional race. There are about 40 people in the room, sitting at tables, eating sandwiches, sipping soft drinks.
In the audience is Derrick Thacker, who works at a seed company in town. The life-long Democrat wants to know more about Crawford. He saw Ellington speak recently in Little Rock.
“I’m hear to learn. Still keeping my mind open,” he said.
Thacker’s friend, Joe Alexander Jr., a candidate in the non-partisan city aldermen’s election, says he wants to hear what Crawford has to say.
Uppermost on Alexander’s mind, however, is agriculture. His father retired from a local rice mill, and his wife works there.
“Whoever can do the most to help agriculture here is probably who I will vote for,” he says.
Crawford is a member of the House Agriculture Committee and owns a farm broadcasting news service.
As the congressman works the room, it’s apparent that he is in his element among voters with a vested interest in agriculture, the economic engine of Stuttgart and eastern Arkansas.
Predictably, his speech centers on the subject, specifically the Farm Bill that is languishing in Congress.
During his 20 minute speech, Crawford talks about his friendship with the U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and the importance of direct payments to rice producers.
“We didn’t prevail on the direct payment, and you know that, but what we did succeed in doing is recognizing that there had to be a mechanism in place with respect to rice production,” he said. “Rice is more sensitive to these things than any other crop and (Lucas) was committed and I was committed to making sure they didn’t just jerk the rug out from under rice producers, that there was a policy in place that allows a level of support without just saying, ‘go forth and get crop insurance.’”
Crawford said often Congress votes along party lines, and that there should “a willingness to work more on a bipartisan level.”
“That is the problem we have, particularly with this farm bill, is that we have come to an impasse,” he said. “One side says ‘we’ve cut too much,’ and the other side says, ‘we haven’t cut enough.’”
About the time Crawford finishes his speech, Diane West says goodbye to the last of the lunch crowd at her Country Gossip restaurant on Main Street and begins to clean up. She said she was invited to attend the luncheon and hear Crawford speak, but she had to work.
“We see everybody here,” West said, noting that politicians routinely stop by for a cup of coffee.
West said she was worried about the economy and the financial security of her 72-year-old mother, who lives off the monthly Social Security check she receives.
West’s husband is disabled, and so is her nephew. She is raising three grandchildren.
“It’s not so bad here in Stuttgart,” she said. “About the work force, the mill hires temporary, so if you want to work you can find a job. Even if you work three months out of the year that’s better than nothing.
“But the economy, trying to run a business, trying to buy groceries to run a business or the feed your family. It can be hard.”
West said she knew more about Ellington than Crawford, but she hadn’t made up her mind which one would get her vote. Sh said she hoped whoever gets elected can do something to stop the gridlock in Washington.
“We just don’t get into all that yank, yanking, back and forth,” she said.