LITTLE ROCK — The membership of the next state House of Representatives on Thursday elected Republican Davy Carter of Cabot as its next House speaker.
Carter defeated fellow GOP Rep. Terry Rice of Waldron by a vote of 52-45. Carter will be Arkansas’ first Republican House speaker since Reconstruction.
The vote came after the membership rejected Democratic Rep. Darrin Williams as its leader. A bid to confirm a vote from March that put the Little Rock Democrat in line to become the state’s first black House speaker next year failed in the wake of the Nov. 6 general election that gave Republicans a majority in the Legislature for the first time since the end of the Civil War.
The election gave 51 of the House’s 100 seats to Republicans, 48 to Democrats and one to a Green party member. A recount in a northeastern Arkansas House district was concluded Thursday with the results confirming the election of the Republican candidate, John K. Hutchison of Harrisburg.
A secret-ballot vote Thursday by incoming House members on whether to affirm the vote by which Williams was elected speaker-designate resulted in Williams losing the title. Forty-eight members voted to affirm the vote and 49 voted not to affirm it.
Rice was the only Republican candidate for speaker when the House voted in March, but Carter presented himself Thursday as new contender. In an emotional speech asking his colleagues for their vote, Carter promised to work hard and be inclusive.
"I promise you I will work with each and every one of you. I promise I will listen to you and really listen to you, your concerns, and everybody’s going to be involved," he said. "It takes every single one of us to make this work."
Carter, the chairman of the powerful House Revenue and Taxation Committee under outgoing House Speaker Robert S. Moore Jr., a Democrat, had let it be known around the Capitol he was open to considering Democrats for House leadership positions — a notion that Rice addressed in his speech.
"If I am elected speaker, I want you to understand this: I will consistently select House leadership on the basis of individual abilities and leadership qualities and, please hear me, not on party affiliation," Rice said.
After the vote, Carter told reporters he had been asked to run for speaker. He did not specify who made the request, but said he believed people wanted him to run because he is a good fit to lead a House that is almost evenly divided between parties, requiring an ability to bring people together.
"I’m committed to working with a diverse membership body for the best for the collective citizens of the state of Arkansas," he said. "I think it was that trust, that respect, with the returning membership that drove this."
Carter said a looming Medicaid shortfall and tax reform will be the top two issues of the session that begins in January.
"Those are going to, at some point, collide, and that will likely be the heart of the session," he said.
Williams told reporters he would support Carter. Asked if he regretted losing the chance to be the state’s first black speaker, he said, "This was never about me."
Rep.-elect Fred Smith of Crawfordsville, the House’s lone Green Party member, said he voted for Williams, then voted for Carter over Rice.
"It was just the best political fit," Smith said, adding he thought Carter would be better able to work with Democrats and Republicans during the next session.
"I thought he was very humble today and hope he will work with both parties," he said.
Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, who will be the House majority leader in the next session, declined to say how he voted. He said he did not believe the contest over the speaker’s race signaled a rift in the party.
"I think Republicans can come together and work together. We have vigorous debates and we vote and we move on from there," he said. "I don’t think the speaker’s vote changes anything on our agenda or the policies we will be pushing."
Rep. Mark Biviano, R-Searcy, said he expected Republicans to unite behind Carter, whom he described as "confident and well respected."
"I think we’ll all come together at the end of the day to work real hard and do what’s right, and I don’t think that will be an issue," he said.
Reporter Rob Moritz contributed to this report.