New Democratic caucus aims to connect with rural voters

The group will host an education town hall Friday in Farmington.

By: - February 20, 2023 4:00 pm
Arkansas Democratic Rural Caucus chairman Steve Grappe and Democratic supporters

Arkansas Democratic Rural Caucus chairman Steve Grappe (third from left) poses for a photo outside West’s Barbershop in Eudora in October 2022, as part of a trip to turnout voters in southern Arkansas. (Photo courtesy of ADRC)

As a former teacher and graduate of a rural Arkansas school district, Jess Piper is concerned rural schools will lose funding and close under the governor’s proposed voucher program.

“Rural schools will fold, communities will suffer,” Piper said. “They’ll lose their epicenter where people got their paycheck, where kids got their hot meals, where people got their health insurance.”

Today Piper lives on a small farm in Missouri where she is a former state House candidate and current executive director of Blue Missouri, an organization that finds and funds Democratic candidates. Piper will discuss rural education Friday as part of a town hall hosted by the Arkansas Democratic Rural Caucus.

Jess Piper
Blue Missouri executive director Jess Piper (Courtesy Photo)

This is one of the first public-facing events for the new group, which started taking shape about a year ago. 

“Rural communities need a voice, and we need to elevate their voices to the Capitol and within county government,” ADRC field committee chair Leah Garrett said.

An Arkansas native, Garrett attended several rural schools in her home state. While working on political campaigns in other parts of the country, she often focused on rural areas and said Arkansas’ rural constituents deserve representation. 

Arkansas was the last southern state to turn red about a decade ago. In 2014, the Republican party won all of the state’s congressional seats, the one open U.S. Senate seat and all of the state’s constitutional offices. The GOP also increased its majorities in the Arkansas House and Senate. 

Garrett noted that the state’s last Democratic governor, Mike Beebe, won all 75 counties during his 2010 reelection campaign, a sign that Democrats exist in all corners of the state.

“There are Democrats out there; they just often don’t have anyone to vote for because it has this feeling of being so red so then no Democrats run,” Garrett said. “And then no one has an option, so we end up voting for a Republican or not voting. So there are people out there. They’re just not being talked to.”

The caucus’ goal is to recruit, train and support Democratic candidates in rural areas, she said. 

The U.S. Census defines urban areas as those with a population above 50,000. Garrett said 69 of Arkansas’ 75 counties are considered rural because the county seat has a population of fewer than 50,000.


It’s important to build relationships with rural voters, discuss their “bread and butter” issues, and address the things that matter to them instead of telling them what their concerns are, she said. 

To make those connections, ADRC is launching a series of events like recurring coffee shop conversations around the state, as well as a “Dirt Road Democrats Tour.” ADRC chairman Steve Grappe described the latter like “a concert tour” where the caucus will travel to targeted cities and have conversations with local residents in conjunction with events like a fish fry or movie night.

“Literally getting into communities, getting to know people and building our network and letting people know we’re here to fight,” he said. 

While Grappe said they “truly believe that the rural voters of Arkansas are not being represented,” he acknowledged there’s “a disconnect for Democrats” in rural counties based on how strongly Republicans have carried these areas in recent elections.

“It took us a long time to get to this place, it’s going to take us a little time to get out,” he said. “We can’t expect results immediately.”

Grappe said “it’s back to local, local, local in rural areas” where the caucus will support partisan races like justice of the peace elections, as well as nonpartisan ones like mayoral and school board elections.  

“If you look at the bills that are being presented, laws, especially here in Arkansas, the Republicans are not working for the working class,” he said. “It is a-pull-the-wool-over-their-eyes game and it is our job to get into these communities and show the reality of what’s happening.”

“Voucher scheme”

As a teen, Piper lived in Altus and graduated from Ozark High School. The Altus-Denning School District was annexed into the Ozark School District in 2004.

Piper was an American Literature teacher for about 16 years. She taught in Ozark for a few years before moving to Missouri, where she said legislators passed “a voucher scheme” that could be coming to Arkansas.

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In 2021, lawmakers established the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program, or MOScholars. The law created a tax credit program to fund scholarships to pay for private school tuition. 

Earlier this month, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders shared some details of her education package, which included a new Education Freedom Account that would provide state funding for parents to enroll their children in public, private and parochial schools or homeschool. 

A bill addressing Sanders’ education proposal is expected to be filed on Monday. 

Proponents of voucher programs say they allow parents to send their children to a school that best fits their needs. Piper argued that rural students don’t have the same choices as those in urban areas because private and parochial schools aren’t going to open in rural areas where there aren’t “enough kids for them to make money.”

“It really is time for Arkansans to say we’re not giving up our public education,” Piper said. “I mean that’s the last good and holy thing we have that hasn’t been privatized.”

Piper has family in Arkansas and said she’s worried about her niece’s nonverbal autistic son who needs special services. Private schools are not required to provide those services or accept all students. Public schools are. 

The impact of voucher programs is not a partisan issue because all rural families will be affected, Piper said. 

“You don’t have to be a Democrat,” she said. “This is bipartisan awful because it impacts every single child in rural Arkansas, so it’s time for people to stand up and say I’m a conservative, but my kid needs a school.”

While running for office in 2022, Piper said her TikTok account “blew up,” and she attributed that to people craving more progressive messages from rural areas. Piper said she’s working to fill that void through the Dirt Road Democrat podcast, which she launched in January. 

“They’re like, you do exist. You are there,” Piper said. “We are and we’re not unicorns…In fact, if rural America and urban America got together and got this progressive coalition, we would be unstoppable because we have the same issues — a lack of childcare, a lack of schools, a lack of health care, bad roads, even pollution.”

Piper will share more thoughts on education during Rural Education in Arkansas: A Town Hall Discussion about the RAISE Act and the Future of Education. 

Sponsored by House Minority Leader Rep. Tippi McCullough (D-Little Rock), the Raising Arkansas’s Investment in Schools and Educators (RAISE) Act calls for an immediate $10,000 raise for all full-time teachers and increasing the state’s minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000 by June 30, 2024.

The bill was filed more than three weeks ago, but has not yet been heard in committee. 

The ADRC event begins at 5:30 p.m. Friday at the Farmington Senior Activity and Wellness Center. More information is available on the group’s Facebook page.


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Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.