Arkansas Democrats nominate candidate with prior conviction

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Democrats nominated a former legislator to fill a vacant candidate spot despite his past conviction, a move that Republicans have already threatened with a lawsuit.

During a virtual convention on Monday, Democrats voted 5-3 to pick Jimmie Wilson as a candidate for the House district centered around Helena-West Helena, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette reported. Former Rep. Chris Richey stepped aside last month after a new job moved him out of the district.

“If the Democratic Party of Arkansas fails to take action and remove this convicted criminal from the ballot, the Republican Party of Arkansas will take the necessary action,” state GOP Chairman Doyle Webb said in a statement Tuesday.

Democrats had previously raised concerns about Wilson's 1991 misdemeanor conviction for illegally converting federal farm loans for personal use and selling mortgaged crops, for which President Bill Clinton pardoned him.

Wilson served in the Legislature after a 4½-month prison sentence. But a 2016 amendment that details the meaning of infamous crimes, a disqualifying distinction in the Arkansas Constitution, could keep Wilson out of office, the state party warned delegates in a letter last week.

The change to the constitution specified the meaning of infamous crimes to include “an act of deceit, fraud or false statement.”

However, state Democratic Party Chairman Michael John Gray said in a Tuesday phone interview that “we will fight vigorously to defend our nominee.”

Gray accused the Republican Party of trying to “steal” the election in a majority-Black legislative district.

“It brings into question Chairman Webb’s belief in his own nominee that he wants to try to go to court to win this rather than win this at the ballot box,” Gray said.

A Republican, David Tollett, is running for the seat.

“I understand Chairman Gray’s frustrations that he has to defend a person convicted of a federal crime,” Webb said in a statement released through a spokesman Tuesday. “Even Michael John himself wrote a memorandum expressing these significant concerns last week, but the committee chose to ignore his warnings.”

The other Democratic candidates were former Helena-West Helena Mayor James Valley and Elaine Mayor Michael Cravens.