Arkansas legislators will make history Friday, regardless of who they vote for as Speaker of the House.
If elected, Rep. Darrin Williams, D-Little Rock, would become the first black speaker in a state known for the Little Rock Nine and the Elaine Race Riot. And Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, would be the first Republican to hold the position since Reconstruction in a state where, for decades, the executive and legislative branches have been dominated by Democrats.
House leaders expect the race to be close and follow party lines. Democrats currently hold the slight 54-46 majority.
Minority Leader John Burris said Republicans will support Rice, and does not know of any crossover votes from Democrats. Majority Leader Johnnie Roebuck definitively said that zero Democrats will be switching sides.
"We're solid," Roebuck said. She predicts that Williams will win the vote, which will be cast by way of a secret ballot.
Democratic Rep. Robert Moore of Arkansas City will retain his seat as House speaker until January 1, 2013. So whoever is victorious will have nine months to transition into his new role of presiding over a regular and a budgetary legislative session.
The speaker's election comes at a point when Republicans believe they're on the verge of winning control of the House in the November election. If Williams is elected to a House that becomes majority Republican this fall, that chamber could have the option of voting him out in January.
Williams has touted his legislative experience at local, state and federal levels. He has served on Little Rock's planning commission, was both chief of staff and chief deputy for the Arkansas attorney general and was an aide to former U.S. Senator David Pryor.
"I also have a significant understanding of how (government) impacts people, and the policies and how they impact people's everyday lives," Williams said.
Rice self-identifies as a political outsider, and said his business background as president and owner of three Rice Furniture & Appliance stores has prepared him for tough fiscal decisions. He says his background has also given him the chance to work with a diverse group of people.
"I've worked 60-80 hours, that's my normal week, all my life," Rice said. "I don't feel that it's just a qualification that you've been in government service to be in government service."
Jay Barth, an associate professor of political science at Hendrix College who unsuccessfully ran for Senate as a Democrat in 2010, said the speaker's race is "historic no matter what."
He said Rice would give Republicans unprecedented power by way of the House speaker's ability to appoint committee members.
"We'd be in uncharted turf there," Barth said. "I think there would be negations on how much power Republicans got, and there would need to be something where Republicans felt like they were getting something substantive for them not to push for a vote for a new speaker."
But a win by Williams would be more symbolic than substantive, Barth said, a high point for African-American political representation. The state has never had a black Speaker of the House or statewide elected official. Moreover, Williams attended Little Rock Central High School, which was forcibly integrated in 1957 when President Dwight Eisenhower deployed federal troops to protect nine black students.
The candidates, however, downplayed the historical significance of Friday's contest.
"This historical part of it, that may be a nice sideline, but is not my motivation to run for speaker," Rice said.
Williams expressed similar sentiments.
"I think it's time we get beyond a lot of firsts," he said, "first of color, first female, that does not at all weigh in my decision to run, and I hope it doesn't weigh in the decision of any of my colleagues who are supporting me."