Arkansas 1st District
The Mississippi Delta, the flat, mucky, river-crossed lowland on both sides of the great river, was some of the country’s first industrial farmland. This land was uncultivated in most of the 19th century, when plows were still pulled by mules and muddy flatlands were impassable. Then, big landowners used machines to drain the marshlands and persuaded poor blacks to move here to tend fields of cotton, rice, and later, soybeans. The results were bountiful agriculture and impoverished people. Around 1940, the Delta began to slowly change: the first minimum-wage and war-industry jobs up North drew young people out of the Delta, and the introduction of the mechanical cotton picker idled many farm workers.
2008 Presidential Vote
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But this land—stretching flat as far as the eye can see, along ribbons of asphalt that shimmer in the heat—remains poor by national standards. The people are undereducated, and the area has substantial pockets of unemployment. Local rice farmers are among the largest recipients of federal farm subsidies: The congressional district ranked fifth in the nation, pulling in $5.2 billion from 1995 to 2006. Riceland Foods, in the town of Stuttgart, is the world’s largest rice miller and marketer and the largest recipient of subsidies in the United States, having received $554 million from 1995 to 2006. The rice producer has attracted an unusual partner in recent years, Colusa Biomass, which hopes to make ethanol out of rice hulls and plans to move its corporate headquarters to Stuttgart in 2009. The local rice fields also attract ducks, helping put Arkansas on the map as the most productive state for mallard hunters. Several big auto-parts plants have been built in Marion, across the Mississippi River from Memphis. But in 2007, when Toyota chose a site for its seventh North American plant, Marion lost out to Tupelo, Miss., in part because of local air-quality problems. The 2007 closure of the Addison Shoe Co. plant in Wynne brought additional economic woes to the area, idling about 174 workers.
The 1st Congressional District of Arkansas includes most of the state’s Delta lands and stretches west to the cool, green Ozarks. The largest city in the district is Jonesboro, whose cheap labor and flat land have made it an industrial hub for food-processing companies like Nestle and Frito-Lay. In 2008, the StarTek call center brought a few hundred more jobs to the area. The district’s natural beauty draws outdoorsmen to the sleepy Ozark town of Mountain Home, named Outdoor Life magazine’s best place to live in 2008. The Delta, with its large black population, is the most Democratic part of Arkansas. Some of the hill counties are ancestrally Republican, and there is a Republican trend in Jonesboro and in Lonoke County, which is part of the Little Rock metro area. The result is that the district is closely divided in national politics. It voted 50%-48% for Democrat Al Gore in 2000 but 52%-47% for Republican George W. Bush in 2004. In 2008, the district voted 59% for Republican John McCain.