At 37 years of age, Clarke Tucker is no stranger to politics. The Little Rock native, a 7th generation Arkansan, two-term state representative, and the son of real estate developer Rett Tucker appears to be making all the right moves in his quest for the Democratic nomination to run for Congress in the state's 2nd District, which covers central Arkansas.
A recent poll conducted by Talk Business & Politics – Hendrix College surveying 624 likely Democratic primary voters showed Tucker with a 41 percent approval rating and 32 percent of the respondents undecided, which indicates that of the four Democratic hopefuls in the primary race, Tucker could possibly gain the nomination with a majority of votes cast, thereby avoiding a runoff.
According to the poll, his closest rival for the nomination is Gwen Combs, a political newcomer who organized last year's Women's March on the State Capitol after Donald J. Trump won the presidential election in an upset after his controversial Electoral College win after losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by a margin exceeding three million votes. Combs was favored by 11 percent of those polled.
Tucker has also raked in more campaign cash in efforts that have brought his campaign more than a half-million dollars, besting his nearest fundraising rival, Paul Spencer of Roland, buy a nearly two-to-one margin.
Despite a comfortable lead in the polls and nearly $450,000 in cash on hand, Tucker said he isn't taking anything for granted, saying, “You've heard it before but the only poll that counts is the one on Election Day.”
Tucker is a graduate of Little Rock Central High School, where he served as student body president. He received his undergraduate degree from Harvard University, where he served as president of the Kennedy School Institute of Politics. After completing his law degree at the University of Arkansas, he served two years as a law clerk for the Honorable J. Leon Holmes, a federal judge who presides over the District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, then joined the law firm of Quattlebaum, Grooms, and Tull.
After 10 years with the law firm, Tucker ran for, and won, the District 35 seat in the state House of Representatives, where is he in the final months of his second term.
Asked why he decided to run for Congress, Tucker said he doesn't agree with the direction the Republican dominated Congress is taking the country in.
“I really started thinking about it when the House passed the American Healthcare Act,” Tucker said. “That, more than any other issue influenced my decision to run. I couldn't understand how anyone could vote to pass legislation that would strip away healthcare from millions of Americans, and that would dismantle innovative programs like the Private Option, now Arkansas Works, that provides healthcare to 300 thousand poor people, and that would make care all but impossible for people with pre-existing conditions.”
Tucker said approximately 32 percent of Americans have a pre-existing condition, a group which he himself joined on Aug. 15 of last year when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. At that point, Tucker said the issue abruptly became very personal.
“When my wife told me I had a tumor, the notion of accessing care without dying or going bankrupt became a lot less academic,” said Tucker. “Fortunately, my treatment was successful but I'm still paying off the medical bills.”
Tucker said he would like to have a Medicare opt-in option but said he doesn't favor a single payer system, saying doing so would not only eliminate options to access private insurance plans for those who prefer to so, but would also place the government in charge of the country's medical care.
“Based on what I've seen coming out of Washington, I don't think I'd trust the government being in charge of my healthcare,” he said.
Another innovation Tucker would like to implement is an expansion of Pre-K programs to include 4 and 5 year olds, an initiative that would not only provide expanded educational opportunities for children at a time when their cognitive development is at its peak while simultaneously relieving millions of parents of the financial burden of childcare in households where both parents work outside the home.
Early childhood education issues have been a big focus of Tucker's efforts at the state level, which he said he will continue at the federal level if he is elected. His efforts are not only a hallmark of Tucker's legislative efforts, but occupy much of his volunteer efforts as well.
“A literacy program I've been really involved in is a literacy program that provides books to kids from birth through their fifth birthday. Eighty –five percent of cognitive development takes place before a child's fifth birthday but we spend 95 percent of our education dollars on kids after their fifth birthday,” said Tucker.
The program, founded by country music star Dolly Parton, is called Dolly Parton's Imagination Library. It provides one age-appropriate book to each child enrolled each month from the time they are born until they reach the age of five, at no cost to the parents.
“I established a 501(c)(3) called the Pulaski County Imagination Library and we're actually distributing books for the first time this spring, which I'm really proud of,” said Tucker. The books, provided through public-private partnerships, cost approximately $125 per child, provided the child is enrolled in the program for the full five years, receiving 60 books in that time.
“The cost is peanuts in terms of government spending, it's nothing, especially considering the return on that investment,” he said.
One of Tucker's major accomplishments during his tenure in the state legislature was to secure the first permanent increase in Pre-K funding over 10 years.
“It was less than I wanted but I'm proud of the fact that we got that increase,” he said. Other accomplishments included the passage of four weeks of paid maternity leave for state employees, some strengthening of public corruption laws at the state level in an effort to make state prosecutions more viable.
“The reason public corruption cases are heard in federal court is because state laws have been non-existent, so there was no point,” said Tucker. “The intention is to change that.”
Tucker and other House Democrats also sought bipartisan support in passing legislation to change the criminal justice system in an effort to streamline it and save money.
“Without going into the weeds, I believe we are making much smarter and more efficient use of the taxpayer dollar and will actually lower costs in the criminal justice system in the long run. We'll actually enhance public safety and lower the crime rate and take care of our citizens with substance abuse and mental health issues at the same time,” he said.
Asked what he sees in the future with the upcoming election, if he believes control of the House will pass to the Democrats or stay in the Republican Party, and how either scenario might affect how he would approach the legislative process, Tucker said he entered the state legislature with Democrats in such a minority that the only way to accomplish anything was to seek out bipartisan alliances.
“My approach is not only will I work with anyone to get things done for the people I represent, but I'm actually eager to seek out people with different perspectives because I think you learn through that process and you work in a collaborative manner to get things done for the people you represent,” said Tucker. “I was actually able to get a lot passed in the legislature using that approach and I think the same approach will work in the U.S. Congress.”
As for future aspirations, Tucker declined to make any predictions.
“If you'd asked me before the healthcare vote if I'd be running for Congress, I'd have said no way,” he said, smiling. “That was barely a year ago.”
Tucker concluded the interview by saying there are currently a number of pressing issues facing Congress, all of which are important and all tied to economic growth.
“I want to emphasize that the state of the economy, job creation, and a solid educational foundation are all things we need to address and I think infrastructure is something we need to address but that Congress has failed to act on, and that is particularly important to states like Arkansas, especially broadband access,” said Tucker. “To steal a line from former Governor Beebe, I think economic development and education are two sides of the same coin. College debt is something we have to get under control because if you're thousands of dollars in debt, that impacts your ability to buy a house, start a business, or practically anything. We have to do a better job.”