The Political Animals

It was 1983, and James L. “Skip” Rutherford of Little Rock was suffering from political withdrawals.

Rutherford had left the staff of Sen. David Pryor and gone to work for Mack McLarty at Arkla.

“I missed seeing people who shared political interests, stories and conversations,” Rutherford says. “So I invited some of them to join me at the Coachman’s Inn for breakfast. Judge William J. Smith was invited to talk about Orval Faubus, 1957 and Little Rock Central High School. We had such a good time that we agreed to meet again. This time, people brought their friends. The rest is history.”

Ah, the Coachman’s Inn.

It was located where the downtown Little Rock post office now stands and owned by the Stephens family. Due to the steady decline of the Marion Hotel, the Coachman’s had become the state capital’s prime political gathering spot.

I finished college and moved to Little Rock in 1981 to work in the sports department at the Arkansas Democrat. In those days, we would put out a first state edition, a second state edition and a city edition.

Between editions, I often would make my way down East Capitol to have dinner at the Coachman’s. The hotel had great food — the mixed grill with a fried chicken breast, a small steak and a couple of fried shrimp was a favorite — and veteran waitresses who called you “honey.”

I would eat there several times a week. On many of those nights, Faubus would be there dining alone.

One day he said to me: “I still have that article you did on me for the Arkadelphia newspaper a few years ago.”

Faubus had gone to each courthouse in the state to sell his most recent book, and I had done a lengthy feature for the Daily Siftings Herald after his visit to the Clark County Courthouse. I was amazed he remembered it.

He invited me to sit down, which I did. After that first meal, we would occasionally have dinner together — a man who at one time had been one of the most recognizable figures in the nation who now dined alone except when dining with a kid fresh out of college with a strong interest in Arkansas politics.

But I digress (it’s my blog, so I guess I can digress if I wish).

Back in 1983, Rutherford had formed what’s now the Political Animals Club.

“In the beginning, the membership was limited to those who were not running or did not hold elective office,” he says. “In 1987, when I announced that I was going to run for the Little Rock School Board, I stepped down as chairman because I was running for office. Political Animals had grown from the Coachman’s to the Little Rock Hilton on University Avenue by that time.”

Little Rock attorney George Jernigan took over as the second chairman of the Political Animals Club. He was succeeded by his law partner, Russ Meeks, who in addition to practicing law is now the president of the Arkansas Travelers Baseball Club. Russ and I share a love for both baseball and politics.

The fourth chairman of the organization was Bob Lyford, the senior vice president and general counsel for the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas. Lyford often held the breakfast meetings in the ornate conference room at the cooperative headquarters in southwest Little Rock.

In January 2007, Lyford handed over the reins to Steve Ronnel, a Little Rock businessman who had worked in the Clinton White House. Ronnel orchestrated the switch from breakfast to lunch meetings and took the club to the Grand Hall of the Governor’s Mansion.

Ronnel also began the Political Animals Scholarship, an annual $3,000 college scholarship competition among public high school student body presidents in central Arkansas.

Late last year, I received a call from the Political Animals chairman. After four years, he was ready to step down. He said he had met with the previous chairmen. They had decided that I should be the sixth chairman in the history of the Political Animals Club.

Just what I needed — something else to do.

Yet how could I turn down the chairmanship of this unique organization whose meetings I had attended on a regular basis since moving back to Little Rock from Washington, D.C., in 1989?

So here I am the new chairman with my first meeting at the helm planned for next Wednesday, Feb. 16, at the Governor’s Mansion at 11:30 a.m.

Our speakers will be Senate President Pro Tempore Paul Bookout of Jonesboro and House Speaker Robert Moore Jr. of Arkansas City. They will talk about the current legislative session.

The cost for lunch is $20 at the door. You can RSVP by sending an e-mail to info@comgroup.com. If you’re not already on the e-mail list to receive the meeting notices, please ask to be added in a message to that same e-mail address.

Paul Bookout served in the House from 1999-2005. He was elected to the Senate in a special election in 2006 following the death of his father, former Senate President Pro Tempore Jerry Bookout. The Bookouts are the first father and son in the state’s history to serve as president pro tem. Jerry Bookout was one of the most popular legislators in Arkansas history, and his son is filling those big shoes well.

Speaker Moore hails from a Desha County family that has played a role in the state’s political arena for decades. He’s a lawyer and a farmer who had a long career in state government. His positions included director of the Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control Board and chairman of the Arkansas Transportation Commission. The speaker, who served in Vietnam, has a deep love for the Delta region of our state and has worked for years to find ways to revitalize the region.

Among the files handed over to me was a list of speakers dating back to late 1991.

The final four speakers of 1991 were (using the titles at the time) Lt. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, governor’s chief of staff Bill Bowen, Clinton presidential campaign manager David Wilhelm and Sen. David Pryor.

The speakers for 1992 were a relatively unknown Baptist preacher who was about to run for the Senate (a fellow named Mike Huckabee), political columnist John Brummett, U.S. Rep. Ray Thornton, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist John Robert Starr, a young congressional candidate named Blanche Lambert, Sen. Dale Bumpers, a doctor from Great Britain named Norman Quick who talked about the British election system and finally a congressman-elect from Pine Bluff named Jay Dickey.

It was quite the eclectic group.

In both August 1993 and November 1994, the club heard from respected Arkansas journalist Steve Barnes and a Democrat-Gazette political editor named Rex Nelson. I’m sure Barnes was great. I don’t know about the other guy.

The beauty of the club is that it’s not a highly structured organization. There are no dues, and there is no board of directors. Anyone can join. There’s no staff. We just keep a list of those who want to receive the e-mail notices and send out those notices when meetings are coming up.

Still, with an e-mail list of more than 1,300 names, Skip Rutherford could never have dreamed how big this “little breakfast group” of his would become after almost three decades.

I hope to see some of you at the Governor’s Mansion on Wednesday.

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4 Responses to “The Political Animals”

  1. Bill Ramsye says:

    Rex,
    Please put me on your meeting notice list.
    I am going to try to attend on Wed. I an on the Ark. Good Roads and Transportation Council and we have an event at the Governor’s Mansion on Tue. evening.
    It was so good to see you on Tue.

    Bill Ramsey

  2. rexnelson says:

    Thanks so much, Bill. We will look forward to seeing you Wednesday. Please be careful in all of that northwest Arkansas snow — Rex

  3. sherry says:

    I googled Coachman’s Inn and found your article. My grandmother was a manager there, she lived at the hotel. We spent many holidays and weekends there. The food was wonderful, I can’t remember the lady’s name that cooked the chicken, I am thinking Bea…it was the best! Because of the friendships my grandmother formed through the hotel, she was able to get me and three of my cousins on as pages at the capital. It was a wonderful place and a wonderful time. I know the hotel is not the focus of your article but it was nice reading it…thank you!

  4. Sally Johnson says:

    I want to attend the next meeting of the Political Animals Club on Sept. 6 or 9, whichever date it is, and possibly my husband also. We have attended before but did not receive a notice of this next meeting. My brother Grif Stockley is one of the panel members, I understand.

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