alternative fuel, Anthro-Pop Records, Asa Hutchinson, bicycle, Ding-Dong-Daddy Days, Fat Tire Festival, global warming, Governor, Green Party, ho-hum, Interface Carpets, James Howard Kuntsler, James Sevier Conway, Jim Lendall, kenaf, Landau Zeal, Little Rock Free Press, Mike Beebe, Mike Huckabee, Pink Tomato Festival, Rod Bryan, soil conservation, The Long Emergency, Warren, water, William Jefferson Bill Clinton
Rod Bryan has a cold.
He smiles while refusing a handshake, explaining he doesn’t want to pass along whatever it is that’s making him consider missing Blackalicious, a show he’s been wanting to see for some time. He disappears for a moment to check on a track from a mix-disc somebody gave him. He returns, noting the cut features a Little Rock band.
The 37-year-old owns Anthro-Pop Records, open since September 2001 on the corner of Markham and Kavanaugh in Little Rock’s Stifft Station area. The store caters to eclectic tastes — audiophiles come in and out to thumb through books, LPs, cassettes, VHS, CDs, DVDs and other musical paraphernalia. Vinyl dots the ceiling and lurks in bins, waiting to be discovered. Obscure magazines beg to be opened.
Some question the seriousness of the Independent candidate for governor, claiming Bryan’s candidacy only serves as free advertising for his store. Yet listening to him quenches those doubts. His interest in politics shows in his store as copies of “Voting 101: A Pocket Guide to Voting in the Natural State” can be found, as well as his unique campaign cards.
The cards say something about this no-frills candidate. Each starts as an empty cardboard box from cereals, crackers, facial tissue, etc. Bryan breaks down the box then stamps it with all-natural ink and cuts it into individual rectangles. The novelty alone makes some people keep the cards for years, but the primary benefit comes from savings in printing costs.
His frugality is noteworthy in a gubernatorial race expected to be the most expensive in Arkansas history. Compared to candidates from established parties, Bryan’s shoe-string budget slows the delivery of his message like his cold impedes the air struggling to reach his lungs.
The Road Less Traveled
But people are receiving the message: little-by-little, bit-by-bit, byte-by-byte.
To become an Independent candidate for governor, aspirants must have gathered at least 10,000 signatures from registered Arkansas voters by May 1. Bryan’s Web site, www.rodbryan.com, kept observers abreast of his candidacy. He gathered 11,800 signatures on 494 pages of petitions and stored them in a shoebox. He rode his bicycle to the state Capitol to hand-deliver the signatures to the secretary of state’s office.
While those signatures may or may not put the first Independent candidate in recent memory on the ballot, they’ve already caused controversy. Green Party gubernatorial candidate Jim Lendall gathered a little over 18,000 signatures for his candidacy, but fell short of the 24,171 signatures – 3 percent of the votes cast in the previous governor’s race – required of third-party candidates. Green Party officials claimed a 1996 federal decision allowing the Reform Party to remain on the state ballot applies to Lendall and informed the Free Press June 1 that they planned to contest the issue.
Bryan believes the petitioning process should be revisited.
“It should be made easier for parties and individuals,” Bryan says. “I hope (Lendall) can get on the ballot. I knew it’s easier to get on the ballot as an Independent. That’s why I took the route I did. That and I don’t want a party telling me what to do.”
Instead of listening to a political party, Bryan listens to customers who’ve entered his store and discussed recurring themes of habitat destruction, the ever-increasing militarism of the United States and corporate influence over government, schools and media. He takes pride in being able to communicate with a variety of citizens by appealing to common-sense solutions.
“I can talk to a lot of different levels of people,” Bryan says. “I’m open-minded and I don’t have a political party’s limitation draped over me. If it’s a good idea, it doesn’t matter if it’s Democrat or Republican, I can work with them.”
Congested but upbeat, Bryan waits to see if he’ll make the Nov. 7 ballot for governor with Democrat Mike Beebe and Asa Hutchison, who hopes to lengthen the 10-year Republican stranglehold on the office.
Bryan’s Web site likens the Democrats and Republicans to two Humvees meeting on a singled-lane bridge crossing a small creek, while his candidacy is depicted as a canoe passing under the bridge headed downstream carrying progress, prosperity, quality of life and “real” education reform.
The site claims the next governor needs to be independent of special interests so that he can champion homegrown ideas and ingenuity. If he makes the ballot, Bryan plans to emphasize the intertwining of economics, education and energy in Arkansas. He says he would rather discuss these “real” issues than “wedge” issues like abortion and gay marriage.
“We need to talk about water, soil conservation, global warming,” he says. “If (Beebe and Hutchinson) understood our plight as a people, then they’d have (environmental issues) as their number one issue. We’re subsidizing the depletion of our resources as a people. By doing that, we’re subsidizing our own demise. I don’t know of any other animal that’s doing that.”
Bryan denounces corporate welfare as killing free-market economics. He claims some corporations in the state worry more about a global economy than the state economy. He proposes providing incentives for corporate leaders to attend seminars on sustainable leadership. He says lax environmental laws and a lack of enforcement of existing environmental laws provide no incentive for corporations to stop what they’re doing.
“I take stewardship of resources extremely seriously because that’s my children’s future,” Bryan says. “At the same time, I know a lot of corporations don’t understand how what they’re doing is damaging our ecosystem.”
Bryan wants to recruit “eco-friendly” business, such as a 100 percent post-consumer-content paper house and a curbside recycling program to be based in the state. He plans to create a Steward of State Materials position to collect, prepare and inventory building materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill. Recalling the idea that Arkansas is the only state in the Union that could be self-sufficient, he talks of building an imaginary wall around the state to secure resources.
Bryan says industry should stop focusing on 30-year plans and start looking at 130-year plans that benefit not only stockholders, but also the people living here once the corporation leaves. He points to an Atlanta company, Interface Carpets, which dedicated itself to leave a zero-ecological footprint despite stockholder derision. Once the company made changes and realized a larger profit, the owner decided to make the company restorative, i.e. its waste products benefit rather than destroy the environment.
“It might take more investment on the front end, but then you’ve got to look at the long-term benefits,” Bryan notes.
Bryan says he believes new trade, manufacturing, and technology jobs may entice the state’s brightest minds to return home after college. Noting the success of North Carolina, Vermont and New Hampshire, he calls for an end to the current educational system. Instead of preparing students to take standardized tests, Bryan wants to start an environmental education specific to Arkansas. He foresees a curriculum that teaches production skills in early childhood education, with an emphasis on a liberal-arts education in high school. He wants colleges and universities working on energy problems specific to Arkansas, with graduates working to develop Arkansas products.
Riding for Change
Rather than only talking about change, Bryan embraces it as evidenced by his campaign symbol – the bicycle. He rides his bicycle to work and all over Little Rock. He added a solar panel to power his public address system and a trailer to pull his kids and carry groceries. Since getting in shape, he can ride from downtown to the Heights in 15 to 20 minutes going uphill, and only take 10 minutes returning if he catches the stoplights. He rode his bicycle in Eureka Spring’s Fat Tire Festival and from Little Rock to Dumas for its Ding-Dong-Daddy Days.
Citing energy prices, Bryan says he believes people won’t have a choice but to switch to bicycles if they’re realistic. As much as he enjoys his bicycle, he also advocates increasing pedestrian infrastructure in Arkansas cities. For example, he wants a pedestrian walkway from Hillcrest to downtown Little Rock. City planner James Howard Kuntsler wrote in “The Long Emergency” about the need for better planning for low-impact transportation in cities; Bryan plans to apply the principles.
“We need to look at long-term personal transportation solutions like bicycles and solar cars,” he says. “As far as mass transit, the trains and trucking industry could be running on biofuels. Hopefully we’re becoming smart enough as a society to use (biofuels).”
While his method of transportation catches media fancy, it hasn’t changed the way other candidates travel. Beebe rides in the “Success Express” bus, but neither he nor Hutchinson plan to rely on bicycles. Both welcome Bryan to the race, according to published accounts attributed to campaign spokesmen, though there’s some question about who would benefit the most from Bryan’s entrance.
“I hope I siphon off votes for both sides equally,” Bryan says. “I’d like to siphon all their votes. Right now, they’re siphoning mine. I think they should quit now so they don’t take votes away from me. Just think how much money we’d save. They could return it to their donors, who could plug it into the new economy.”
With rising energy costs, some folks may consider siphoning gas – not Bryan. He converted a diesel engine to use vegetable oil gathered from Little Rock restaurants. Currently, he can only run on the oil after it’s heated. He’s thinking about adding an Elsbett injector that would allow him to run the car on straight oil year-around.
Apparently the car that smells like french fries doesn’t bother his wife Lennie, who drives it while Bryan bikes about the city. The two married in 1996 and now live near the store with daughters Corinne, 4, and Vincent, 2. They met while attending Ouachita Baptist University.
Bryan grew up in Bradley, which sits a few miles north of the Louisiana line in southwest Arkansas. He notes the town does not grow Bradley tomatoes, but describes the place as “40 miles below Hope” – as in Hope, the birthplace of President Bill Clinton. Bradley boasts the gravesite of James Sevier Conway, Arkansas’ first governor.
On his Web site, Bryan writes about witnessing clear-cutting, monocultures and topsoil erosion in his home town. He acknowledges never washing his 1989 Toyota Wagon; he doesn’t think children learn conservation by having car washes for fund-raisers. If elected, Bryan writes that he will make cleaning up groundwater problems a priority.
Bryan worries about depleting aquifers because of the timber industry and corporate rice farming. He says eastern Arkansas farmers need to stop growing rice because the crop uses too much water. Instead, he plans to offer incentives to farmers to grow minimum-water crops like Kenaf, which makes tree-free paper, chemical absorbents, cooking oil, animal bedding and feed, canvas, boards, car insulation, composite materials and more. His Web site claims Kenaf use would improve the Arkansas economy and lessen dependence upon crops that require heavy subsidization, over-irrigation and ever increasing pesticide use.
Bryan compares the current two-party system to two spoiled children fighting over a lollipop. When it comes to environmental issues, he says creativity is needed in office.
“I’ve got lots of that: will-power and creativity,” Bryan says. “You can give these guys millions of dollars and they can’t come up with solutions. I come up with solutions all the time. The best album my band ever made, we had no budget.”
Bryan founded the band ho-hum with his brother, Lenny, and some friends in 1990. Recently voted Little Rock’s Band of the Decade, the band’s third album, “Local,” debuted under the major label, Universal. Rather than conform to the recording industry’s mainstream demands, the brothers formed their own label, Playadel.
In a political-musical twist, ho-hum played a show and gave 40 percent of the proceeds to Bryan’s campaign. While political musicians are nothing new to Arkansas – Bill Clinton played saxophone on his way to the White House and Mike Huckabee is the only current governor with his own band – Bryan notes there’s a difference.
“Where they’re playing music someone else wrote, I’m writing my own,” he says. “That’s not to diminish role players playing music. Musicians who make their own music are part of the evolutionary process. Musicians playing other’s music are just historians or propagandists.”
Much as cover bands distort the original music, Bryan claims the word “politician” has been distorted such that constituents view it in a negative light. He describes today’s politicians as little more than brokers; in essence, whoever gets the highest stack of cash, wins.
“Don’t even give them the dignity of calling them politicians because they’re corporate brokers and that’s it,” Bryan says. “If there’s ever been any sense of honor in the word politician, it needs to be restored.”
(As the interview winds down, Bryan pauses for a moment to talk with a customer about Neil Young. The sign outside raves about Young’s new album, but it’s out of stock at the moment. Bryan offers to play his copy so the customer can make an informed judgment about buying it or not. After a few cuts, the customer pre-orders the album, then leaves.)
Bryan uses the lieutenant governor’s race as evidence that issues often do not matter: the winners came down to name recognition, determined by who has the most money. He defines a politician as someone who gets two sides to come together on an issue. He claims getting into office without spending a lot of money will allow him to be a better politician.
Pushed for a major difference between him and the front-runners, Bryan pauses then earnestly replies, “I have not made myself rich by being a benefactor of corporate welfare or ‘pretending’ to be a public servant.”
He says he believes people should not exercise their right to vote if they’re not informed on the issues. Such statements probably won’t win friends, but Bryan’s Web site notes constituents should not be offended.
“A lot of things that you will see on this site may come off as brash or naïve,” he writes. “I don’t mind ruffling a few feathers to get the ball rolling toward the real change that I think is long overdue.”
Bryan writes that on his first day in office, he will donate half of his annual salary to a deserving state program. He wants to recycle paper, bottles and cans, and compost orange peels, apple cores, egg shells, coffee grounds and more. He also proposes outfitting the governor’s mansion with solar panels, rain cisterns, hyper-insulation, organic gardens and a gray-water filtration system. When discussing such improvements, his Web site asks, “Are we or are we not the Natural State?”
Waiting to Go
As Bryan answers the phone the next day, it’s obvious his cold remains. After waiting all day to hear about his petition, Bryan missed last night’s Blackalicious show; instead, he went to bed about dark. He’s afraid his wife also may have the flu bug.
“I thought I was getting better, but I’m getting worse,” he says.
Bryan refuses traditional medicines, preferring natural remedies though they sometimes take longer to work. He’s used to waiting, a trait that comes in handy as he waits for the validation of the signatures he gathered and for the opportunity to run.
“I’m preparing to not be on the ballot,” he says.
Lynda Jo Jones, an election representative for the Secretary of State’s office, said June 1 that it will be a little while before the signatures are validated as only two people have been verifying them. The primaries and subsequent run-offs took priority in the office, but that’s not the only problem.
“People need to learn to write legibly so that we can read it,” Jones says.
Jones promises more people will help count signatures once things calm down. She notes the process of verifying signatures come from registered voters takes time even though they’re “diligently working on it every day.”
One recognizable signature comes from the term-limited governor who continues to consider his political future. Even after criticizing Huckabee for using a state plane for out-of-state travel as well as his proposal to issue state bonds for colleges and interstate highways, Bryan persuaded the Republican governor to sign the petition after noting his wife should have the opportunity to vote for him. The governor’s office released a statement saying Huckabee signed the petition because Bryan’s candidacy could be good for Hutchinson. An equal-opportunist, Bryan asked Beebe to sign his petition, but the Democrat refused.
Though he’s reluctant to criticize the people counting signatures, Bryan notes he had two months to collect signatures. Bryan says he thinks it’s reasonable to expect the signatures to be verified within a month. The May 31 deadline would have given him some idea whether to attend Warren’s 50th Pink Tomato Festival, where candidates traditionally court the vote of Southeast Arkansans. He’s thinking about riding his bike in the festival, complete with his solar-powered radio.
“There’s no money in the campaign, but I’m not going to put out my hand for money if I’m not going to be on the ballot. I’m not going to go full-bore until I know … I’m not going to put on my fund-raiser hat until then,” Bryan says, before adding, “I hate wasting money.”
While he “can’t imagine winning,” Bryan quickly notes professional wrestler Jesse Ventura became Minnesota’s governor because he spoke to people and motivated the legislature. The potential remedy to the two-party system drives his point home.
“If I did get elected, I’d do it to the hilt and work harder than anyone’s ever seen,” Bryan says. “If I do get on the ballot and the media does their job, intelligent people will vote for me. I do believe I have leadership qualities the other guys don’t have and don’t understand. I’m not trying to win by ordinary means. For me to win, it’ll take people taking a real leap forward in thinking.”
* NOTE: The candidacy gained momentum when the Secretary of State’s office verified 10,050 signatures June 26 to put Bryan on the ballot as an Independent, the first in Arkansas since the 1940s.
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This article originally appeared in the June 10-July 9, 2006 issue of the Little Rock Free Press.