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At pizzeria meeting, Democrats in Arkansas House pick Whitaker to lead

At a pizzeria a short walk from the state Capitol in Little Rock, Democrats in the Arkansas House voted for a new leader of their caucus last week, selecting Fayetteville Rep. David Whitaker.

The new House minority leader will guide a caucus in which Democratic ranks have been depleted since the party lost control of the Legislature in 2013 for the first time in more than a century.

Whitaker, an attorney by trade, has represented District 85 in the House since 2013, most recently serving as the 24-member caucus's whip during the 2017 general session.

The three-term lawmaker replaced Rep. Michael John Gray of Augusta, who was elected chairman of the statewide party at a gathering of Arkansas Democrats in March.

Gray said he would step down from his legislative leadership role as he took over in steering the party. Whitaker was the first and only lawmaker to put his name in for a bid to succeed Gray.

House Democrats held off on a vote in March, to avoid making the switch as the general session was winding down, Whitaker said.

Instead, they met over pizza at Vino's in Little Rock last week, after finishing the second day of a three-day special session -- where Republicans approved downsizing Arkansas' private-option Medicaid program.

Lawmakers are not scheduled to meet again in Little Rock for a general session until 2019.

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While it's too early to have an agenda laid out, Whitaker said, Democrats will continue to take up causes that have eluded them under Republican control of the Legislature.

"You can bet we'll still be talking about fully funding pre-K and expanding access to it," Whitaker said in a phone interview Monday. "We won't give up on the earned-income tax credit for working people."

Until then, Whitaker said, his first duties will be rewriting the caucus's rules and bylaws, as well as "the more exciting" job of candidate recruitment for the 2018 elections. House members serve two-year terms.

Whitaker said that beginning this summer, he will reach out to Democratic incumbents to get a list of who is planning to run again, and figure out where the party will have to put new names on the ballot.

Gray expressed confidence that Whitaker would "do a great job" in taking over. The pair competed for the minority leader spot in 2015, when Gray was elected to succeed Rep. Eddie Armstrong, D-North Little Rock.

"He's been a leader without the title in our caucus," Gray said of Whitaker.

Whitaker's move up from party whip created a vacancy that Democrats selected Rep. Charles Blake of Little Rock to fill.

Before serving in the Legislature, Whitaker was the last Democrat to make a run at the U.S. House from Arkansas' heavily conservative 3rd Congressional District.

He lost to current U.S. Rep. Steve Womack in a 2010 bid to replace John Boozman, who successfully ran for the U.S. Senate that year.

Asked what advice his predecessor gave him, Whitaker said he was told to have a "good sense of humor."

Metro on 05/09/2017

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