Political activism comes naturally to Paul Spencer, to hear him tell it. A native of Steubenville, Ohio, the effect of politics on people’s everyday lives was a staple of his upbringing. Steubenville made its mark as a steel town in an era when steel was the economic engine that powered the region.
“I saw the effect of politics everywhere because the unions were so big when I was growing up,” Spencer said. “The importance of organized labor was right under my nose. When the steel workers went on strike, the city bus drivers would go on strike, and the sanitation workers would go on strike out of solidarity.”
It was that sense of solidarity, along with a solidarity born of poverty, Spencer said, that served as his first example of how ordinary people can gain power through the political process by working together. During the peak steel years in the U.S., the steel mills of the region covered a vast area from Pittsburgh, PA to Weirton, WV/Steubenville, OH, situated alongside the Ohio River.
“From Pittsburgh through Wheeling and into the Steubenville/Weirton area, the mills were essentially one big complex that employed hundreds of thousands of people in the region,” Spencer said. “After the mills started streamlining due to competition from Japan and Germany after World War II, it eventually became a shell of itself, a place where prosperity is not to be had.”
Spencer last visited the area in 2005, and described his hometown as desolate, a virtual ghost town, having shed more than half of its population from the 45,000 people who lived and worked there in the 1970s to just over 17 thousand today. The steel mills that rumbled with the sounds of steel production 24 hours a day are now idled.
“There were parts of town that stretched for blocks that had maybe one business left, and that was usually a bar,” he said.
After high school, Spencer moved east, working as a studio session drummer from the mid-1980s into the early 1990s, returning to the Pittsburg area to attend college, studying history and anthropology. It was while he was in school that he met his wife of 22 years, Stephanie. They moved to Little Rock in the late 1990s, then to a 15 acre farm located in the community of Scott, where are raising their three sons, as well as a pecan grove and a bee colony.
Since 1999, Spencer has taught courses in Government and History at Little Rock’s Catholic High for Boys.
“My wife didn’t much care for my hometown,” Spencer said. “We were thinking about moving back up there, but my wife didn’t really like the place. It’s very gray and if you’ve ever watched the movie, ‘The Deer Hunter,’ it was filmed in my hometown. Her family is from Little Rock so here I am.”
Spencer’s first foray into Arkansas politics came with an effort to bring about campaign finance reform in the wake of the infamous Citizens United vs FEC Supreme Court ruling that introduced a flood of so-called “dark money” into the political process. In 2010, Spencer formed the group “Regnant Populus,” so named for the state motto which is Latin for “the people rule.”
The group scored a victory in Arkansas with the passage in 2014 of Amendment 94 to the Arkansas Constitution, which banned direct corporate contributions to state candidates and lengthened the “cooling off period” that legislators must wait before becoming lobbyists from one year to two years.
Spencer was also involved in the formation of the Arkansas Democracy Coalition, which works to streamline and collaborate organizational voices opposed to dark money and political corruption in politics at both the state and national levels.
“Campaign finance corruption is the first mover of all subsequent political corruption. When you allow that kind of money to come in, it invariably causes a quid pro quo and then representative democracy is dead in the water,” said Spencer.
Spencer said there are legislative attempts in Congress to fix the system, which he will support if he is successful in his Congressional bid, but he said he isn’t optimistic about the pace of progress on Capitol Hill. He said there are amendments in both the House and Senate that seek to reverse the concepts of corporate personhood and money as speech, but said for true change to occur, pressure will have to be brought to bear on the state legislatures to ratify the amendments.
“At the end of the day, if we fight it out on the legislative side, I don’t know that I’ll live long enough to see that happen,” he said.
Complicating efforts at true reform, said Spencer, is resistance from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which he said actively seeks to stymie efforts of candidates who are not part of the established political order to gain a political foothold in the Democratic Party.
“There are scads of excellent candidates out there that the DCCC and the various national organizations don’t want anything to do with,” Spencer said. “Hell, some of the establishment people in the Heights here in Little Rock don’t want anything to do with that. They’ve had a lock on control of the Democratic Party for a long time. Their mantra is ‘we need to harken back to the good old days when we had Bumpers and Pryor and people like that.’ Well, I’d like to point out it was Mark Pryor who killed gun control after Sandy Hook and the Democratic Party that presided over Jim Crow. When we start reeling back the hands of time, how far back do we really want to go? We just need to move forward and get the power out of the hands of the wealthy donor class here in Little Rock.”
Healthcare reform is another issue Spencer has championed as a proponent of a single payer medical care system to replace the current for profit model that he said is a model of waste, inefficiency, and abuse that currently consumes some $3 trillion annually.
“We can give healthcare to everyone in this country for about half that amount,” he said. “It’s inconceivable that in a country that possesses the wealth this country has, that people have to choose bankruptcy to seek medical care, sometimes even if they do have medical coverage. Greed is the only reason that condition exists here.”
Spencer said during the course of the primary campaign, he has concentrated only on the race he is running against three other Democratic candidates
“I have only the highest regard for all of the folks I’m running against in the primary. I can only say nice things about Clarke (Tucker). I’ve worked with him on good government issues with dark money and actually sent his idea to my FEC lawyers when the speaker told him it was unconstitutional. I’m not going to give you some I’ve grown up in poverty thing. I’m an outsider to politics but I’ve been far enough inside to know how things work.”
At that point, Spencer offered his only critique of any of his opponents for the nomination.
“From the moment he announced, Clarke has said that he will work across the aisle, that he will get consensus. But I think there are things that are important enough, such as people’s health or the preservation of our representative democracy, those things give you latitude to not be polite. And when it suits them, the Republicans certainly don’t reach across the aisle.”
Spencer said he entered the race, not out of anger, but because it offered a platform for him to offer up his ideas. He said in the wake of the presidential election, many people from all parts of the political spectrum were angry and focused that anger on Donald Trump or the political parties or even one another. But that anger, he said, while serving as a motivator, becomes counterproductive if it doesn’t result in actionable ideas for change.
I’m angry at poverty. I’m angry at people not having representation. I’m angry at people’s healthcare being toyed with,” he said. “But what I’m not angry at is Donald Trump. He is only a symptom of what we’ve become. And that’s why I’m running, to change what we have allowed ourselves to become.”