Grant Tennille, the former economic development chief of Gov. Mike Beebe who helped bring Big River Steel to Arkansas, was elected chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party and said he would use his “tons of connections” to build the party into a solid red state.
Tennille defeated Jim Wallace of Eureka Springs at the Democratic State Committee meeting on Saturday. The previous president, Michael John Gray, had left to become the executive director of Liberty and Justice for Arkansas, a group whose goal is to “fight Trumpism” and “to defeat Sarah Huckabee Sanders”, the Republican candidate for governor.
Tennille said in an interview that he intends to work full time as chairman of the Democratic Party, an unpaid position. He said his “first order of business” was to raise funds, tidy up the headquarters and return the staff to full.
“I think a lot of things are honestly going to be me over the phone,” he said. “I have tons of connections across this state, and there are a lot of Democrats who have expressed interest in my candidacy to me and told me they would be there if I get elected. And now that I’m elected, I’m going to call them up and say, ‘It’s time to write this check.’ “
Tennille received a letter of support from Beebe, who wrote: “For Grant, there is no job too big, no job too small; he is trustworthy, capable and fiercely loyal.
Tennille takes over a party that dominated Arkansas politics for a century and a half, from the end of the Civil War until 2010, when the state began to shift. Today, Republicans control all state and congressional offices and four-fifths of the Arkansas legislature.
He said the party needs to reconnect with its grassroots and be inclusive and pro-business. He said he had the option of acquiring offices in northwest Arkansas, traditionally a Republican stronghold. He said the party is attracting candidates, has a contested primary for governor and expects a contested primary in the race for secretary of state.
Tennille criticized the Republicans’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic and said Democrats should stand up to Republican extremists in the legislature. He said Democrats would support investments in rural infrastructure and oppose Republicans’ efforts to end state income tax.
“I certainly think that, as it is, we are the party of the facts,” he said. “We are the party that supports science. We are the party that thinks we have to think rationally about our challenges. And I don’t see much on the other side. And so I think it’s incumbent on us to stand up and tell people what we believe, and I think there’s a high percentage of Arkansans who agree with us.
Tennille was a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in the 1990s before joining Gov. Mike Huckabee’s communications team – a Republican and, ironically, the father of Sanders, who was running for governor this year. Tennille said he was a Democrat at the time, but knew he wanted to be actively involved in the process and was loyal to Rex Nelson, Huckabee’s communications director and former editor of the Democrat-Gazette.
Tennille left the governor’s office to work for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, then worked in the telecommunications industry and helped a friend in Birmingham start a business. He returned to Arkansas in 2007 to work for Beebe, holding several positions and then serving as a liaison with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. When AEDC’s director, Maria Haley, passed away suddenly, Tennille became interim director, then director. He said his work helping set up the Big River Steel plant in Mississippi County took almost three years.
Tennille then owned a consulting company that helped businesses find locations in Arkansas. He said he had worked the past three years as an unpaid economic development advisor for Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott.