HEBER SPRINGS — Nearly every morning, unless someone is sick, Matthew Bunch meets up with two friends at McDonalds for coffee and the latest news around this small town in the foothills of the Ozarks.
Much of the conversation surrounds the races for Cleburne County sheriff and county judge, but sometimes Bunch and Ron Allsup, both Democrats, and Republican Terry Kemp talk about the 1st District congressional race.
One thing that surprises them is how little they’ve seen of Democratic candidate Scott Ellington around town during the campaign.
"I don’t remember him being here at all," Allsup said during a morning meeting of the friends one day last week.
Ironically, on that very day Ellington had planned campaign stops in Heber Springs and Batesville but had to cancel because of his full-time job as 2nd Judicial District prosecutor.
"It has been a balancing act and you have to adapt," Ellington said one afternoon last week while on his way from Jonesboro to a party-sponsored event in Hazen. "It’s been a lot of early mornings and late nights."
Ellington faces incumbent Republican Congressman Rick Crawford in the Nov. 6 general election, along with Green Party candidate Jacob Holloway of Jonesboro and Libertarian Party candidate Jessica Paxton on Marion.
Since Ellington announced his candidacy in late April, it has not been uncommon for planned campaign events to be rescheduled or scrubbed altogether because regular duty called.
In fact, Ellington did not campaign at all in July because he was prosecuting a capital murder case against Jerry Lard, who was accused in the 2011 shooting death of Trumann police officer Jonathan Schmidt. Lard was convicted of capital murder and attempted capital murder in Greene County Circuit Court. He was sentenced to death.
"My prosecutorial duties certainly take a great deal of time," Ellington said, making it difficult to campaign in the predominantly rural district that encompasses 29 counties and stretches from the Missouri border in the north to the Louisiana border in the south, and from the Ozark National Forest in west-central Arkansas to the Mississippi Delta at the far southeastern tip of the state.
"It’s not particularly easy," he said. "I certainly have tried to reach and touch folks all the way around the district as much as I can. Rarely do we go unless there is some sort of event, but now it’s more of the stopping at the coffee shops and shaking hands, and that’s a morning thing."
Until a few weeks ago, Elliington said, the November general election was hardly on people’s minds in a district where farmers worry more about their crops and making sure they were harvested. People across the region began paying more attention after the first presidential debate between President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney.
Ellington, 49 is perhaps best known for brokering a plea deal that freed three men convicted in the 1993 deaths of three West Memphis second-graders. He said reporters ask him about that case more than residents of the district. The people of the district are more concerned about the economy, he said.
"I think my interests are with the folks that have to work every day or are without a job," said Ellington, noting his middle-class upbringing — his mother worked at a school cafeteria and father worked at factory in Jonesboro — reflect the ideals and concerns of most residents of the district.
"My opponent votes 94 percent of the time with the Republican Party," he said. "I don’t necessarily agree that is paying attention … to the will of the people of this district."
Ellington said he often gets asked about the gridlock in Washington and what can be done to get Democrats and Republicans to work together.
"What I tell people all the time is that I’m the prosecuting attorney of the second-largest judicial district in the state. We file approximately 7,000 felony cases in our district every year, but we can’t have 7,000 jury trials in our district every year," he said. "I know and have learned how to sit across the table from my opposition and negotiate an agreement of the facts that works for both sides."
Back at the Heber Springs McDonalds, Bunch and Allsup said they most likely will vote for Ellington, while Kemp says he will vote for Crawford.
"Vote Democrat is all I’m saying," said Allsup.
Bunch said he thinks the gridlock in Washington needs to stop, adding, "I think we’ve been sold out."
Later, Bunch suggested he and Obama might be distant cousins.
"I don’t say it too loud, but on the family tree, his grand pa and my great grand pa, I think, are kinfolk, but don’t put that on there because he’ll be wanting to get me involved in his business and I don’t want to get involved in his business," Bunch said with a smile.