Posted 4/6/2014 04:26 pm
Updated 4 months ago
HOT SPRINGS — Former President Bill Clinton returned to his home state on Saturday to stump for his former Federal Emergency Management Agency head's congressional bid, praising James Lee Witt as someone who could go to Washington with bipartisan respect from his work responding to natural disasters.
Clinton headlined a fundraiser for Witt, the only Democrat running for the 4th Congressional District covering southern and western Arkansas. U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, a Republican who currently holds the seat, is challenging Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor this fall.
Clinton praised Witt, who served as FEMA director during Clinton's both terms in the White House, as "somebody who would immediately be respected by Democrats and Republicans" if elected to Congress.
"James Lee Witt is not a cardboard cutout. He's not a 30-second ad," Clinton told more than 350 people packed into a ballroom in downtown Hot Springs. "He is a real live, flesh and blood human being who has made every cause he ever touched better."
State Rep. Bruce Westerman and Hot Springs businessman Tommy Moll are seeking the Republican nomination in the May 20 primary.
Witt, a former Yell County judge, recounted first meeting the former president in 1974 when Clinton was challenged then-U.S. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt. Clinton lost that race, but the two remained friends and Witt later headed the state's emergency services office when Clinton was governor.
Witt said he thought he could make a difference in people's lives the same way he believed Clinton did as president and as Arkansas' governor.
"I'm not running to build a career. I'm running to make a difference," Witt said. "I think with my background and my experiences, I can help make a difference for the 4th district of Arkansas."
Republicans were eager to paint the 42nd president as a distraction from Democrats who wanted to avoid being tagged with President Barack Obama, who remains deeply unpopular in the state.
"The last thing hardworking Arkansas families need in Washington is another politician only looking out for himself, and that's exactly what they'll get with James Lee Witt," state Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb said in a statement issued a day before Clinton's visit.
Witt's campaign did not have an estimate for how much it expected to raise from Saturday's fundraiser, as well as a Friday night event headlined by the president for the campaign.
Clinton remains a popular surrogate for Democrats in his home state, who hope to rebound from recent GOP gains over the past two elections. Republicans hold all four U.S. House seats in Arkansas, control the state Legislature and hold one of its two U.S. Senate seats.
Clinton last year headlined the kickoff fundraiser for Pryor. He's also sent out a fundraising email for former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, who is running for governor.
Clinton also planned to headline a fundraiser on Sunday for former North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays, who is running for the 2nd Congressional District in central Arkansas. State Rep. Ann Clemmer, Little Rock banking executive French Hill and retired Army Col. Conrad Reynolds are seeking the GOP nomination for that seat.
Saturday night's fundraiser also featured Norman Mineta, who served as Commerce secretary under Clinton and also was transportation secretary under former President George W. Bush.
Mineta, a former congressman, said Witt transformed FEMA from an agency he said was one "that could screw up a two-car parade."
"He is a person who's able to look at an issue, try to get all the issues on the service and then find a way through to a solution," Mineta said.