Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Charlotte Schexnayder: Salty Old Editor

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

I wasn’t surprised that the room was packed even though it was the middle of the day on a weekday. People had come from across Arkansas to hear Charlotte Tillar Schexnayder speak at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock.

She has had that kind of impact on our state and its people during her 88 years.

I’ve known Charlotte in several of her roles.

As a young newspaperman, I came to know her as the person who ran (along with her husband Melvin) one of the best weekly newspapers in the South.

Later, as a political reporter and as a member of the governor’s staff, I knew Charlotte as a leading light in the Arkansas Legislature.

She’s the epitome of a gracious Southern lady — but with a tough streak; governors and others learned the hard way never to underestimate her — and an Arkansas institution.

Her new book from Butler Center Books in Little Rock — titled “Salty Old Editor — An Adventure in Ink” — makes for fascinating reading.

“She’s a treasure,” says former President Clinton. “I’m so grateful I’ve had the chance to know her, work with her and be her friend.”

Former U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers calls her “one of those too rare people who not only cares about what’s right and wrong in the world but spends a lifetime trying to do something about it. Together, she and her late husband Melvin were the bedrock of their community, the Delta and the entire state.”

Former U.S. Sen. David Pryor calls her a “powerful force for equality, fairness and justice. Her life has been an epic story of how one person can make a difference. She is a true public servant.”

Charlotte is a former president of the Arkansas Press Women, the Little Rock professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Federation of Press Women, the Arkansas Press Association and the National Newspaper Association.

She also was the first female president of the Dumas Chamber of Commerce.

She has always been a pacesetter.

In the late 1940s, Melvin and Charlotte Schexnayder found themselves living in the pine woods of east Texas at Marshall. Melvin had accepted a job in early 1948 with the Texas & Pacific Railroad as a chemical engineer.

“His job involved analyzing oil and water samples for steam engines,” she writes. “I always dreaded the possibility that he might dislocate his lame shoulder when he climed the company water tanks for samples.

“More often, he was in the company laboratories or on a train going as far as Pecos, Texas — 800 miles away. The job demanded five to six days a week on the road, leaving us miserable with little home life.

“Mother came to visit in Marshall in the summer of 1948. Melvin drove her 1937 Plymouth there, and on the back was a coop of chickens from Tillar. We had a flat tire on the way, and a man who stopped to help us was much amused. However, we thought the fried chicken was very tasty that summer.

“My solution while Melvin was constantly traveling was to read and keep our domicile, all the while missing the news business. Occasionally, I traveled with him and particularly remember the dust storms in west Texas. Neither of us was content away from the other.

“In late summer, we received a telegram from W.M. Jackson, owner of the McGehee Semi-Weekly Times. He asked if we would come to McGehee as editor and advertising manager. Melvin had never sold advertising but had done well in business courses in graduate school. Tired of his constant traveling, we said to one another: ‘Let’s try the newspaper business for a year.’

“Little did we then realize, it would last a half-century.”

Southeast Arkansas had no bigger advocate during that half-century than Charlotte Schexnayder.

She was born Christmas Day 1923. Her father was Jewell Stephen Tillar, the son of Dr. Stephen Olin Tillar and Fannie Harrell Tillar, pioneer residents of southeast Arkansas. They had come over from Selma in Drew County to help found the town of Tillar as the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad laid its track south from Little Rock in 1870.

Stephen Olin Tillar had fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. He was captured and imprisoned near Chicago.

“When he was released, he walked home barefooted and was so emaciated that his family did not recognize him,” Charlotte writes. “He studied medicine and became a practicing physician. My father was born on Dec. 19, 1886, and was the youngest of his family.”

After working for the newspaper in McGehee, Charlotte and Melvin bought the Dumas Clarion.

Charlotte says they learned the following lessons during their years in McGehee:

— “Manage with one-boss rule editorially. A showdown with a composing room foreman who sought to direct all operations quickly taught me that I had to control content and deadlines. I made editorial decisions and always faced the consequences.”

— “Believe in your community, and the people will join you. Many coummunities depend on their newspaper publishers/owners for leadership.”

— “Plain hard work exceeds inspiration, probably in proportion of 90-10.”

— “Never leave to others some job you should do. A staff will seek to excel when the editor-publisher sets the standard.”

— “Listen for the little stories. They often are the most compelling because they touch the human heart. I once gained wisdom from interviewing a 90-year-old who said: ‘When ah walks, ah walks slow; when ah rocks, ah rocks easy; and when ah worries, ah goes to sleep.'”

— “Expect broadly flung daggers. I didn’t cause trouble but was blamed for reporting it. Many would rather blame the messenger than the culprit. Moreover, it seems more fun to fire at the messenger.”

— “Remember that you are writing current history and make every effort to get it right.”

— “Rely on some humor during tough times. It’s the best antidote.”

 — “If the job isn’t fun, find another. I looked forward to every day. I was the eternal optimist; Melvin, the pragmatist. Together we knew how to set goals and reach them.”

Charlotte tells how her mother walked into the Dumas newspaper office for the first time and asked, “Are you sure you want this place?”

Charlotte and Melvin’s son John was just five months old at the time.

Tillar was 13 miles south. Dumas had 2,512 residents with the Missouri Pacific railroad tracks splitting its four-block business district.

“Climate control, virtually unheard of in small newspaper plants, was relegated to window and oscillating fans for cooling and an overhead butane gas heater for heating,” Charlotte writes. “It was drafty in winter we found, as we stood looking it over in late January 1954. We suspected the building could be much more uncomfortable in summer because of extra heat from the single linotype, metal-casting typesetter.

“Weekly newspaper offices were notoriously messy, and this was no exception. Stacks of exchange newspapers were piled in a corner, while metal single spindles held important copy waiting to be sent to a typesetter.”

Did they really want this place? Her mother’s question rang in Charlotte’s ears.

“We thought of the people who wanted us,” she writes. “Perhaps the desire for our very own newspaper obscured our vision of the surroundings, and we foresaw a great adventure. Melvin and I looked at one another, instead of at the plant, and affirmed, ‘We really do want this place.'”

At that point, Charlotte could not have foreseen a future political career.

In the 1970s, she became the first woman appointed to what was then called the state Board of Pardons & Parole.

She says her experience on the board led her to believe “I might bring energy, perseverance and my varied experience to the political scene. I found naysayers; I often had as a women who broke barriers. But I reasoned that a citizen legislature, as in Arkansas, would include members with potential conflicts of interest because of primary occupations. Since legislators were part time, serving in biennial sessions, one had to depend on personal wealth or employment.”

When she announced in 1984 that she would run for the Legislature, no one dared oppose her. Charlotte was already a legend in her district.

At the state Capitol, though, she still had to prove herself during that first session in 1985.

“As a newspaper editor, I was treated with obvious wariness, a bit of suspicion and even a tinge of distrust by a few,” Charlotte writes. “With quiet dignity and hard work, I tried to overcome those attitudes. There was one huge advantage, however. No one dared to offer a shady deal; I owned a newspaper.”

Veteran state Rep. Bill Foster of Keo, who had served in the House since 1961, once told her: “I was determined to dislike you. You were a newspaper editor. But it took me only a week to change my mind.”

During her first week in the House, Rep. Geno Mazzanti of Lake Village approached Charlotte and said, “No one expects much of a freshman representative. Just sit and listen and you will be fine.”

She replied: “You obviously don’t know me very well. I am not a sideline sitter, and I always have plans.”

Charlotte says she believes in the people of the Delta, and they believe in her.

“I have drawn strength from them and my forebears, beginning with my childhood in Tillar,” she writes. “Tiny towns can launch fulfilling and diverse careers such as mine. The seed for the dream was planted in my childhood.”

What a life she has lived. And she still has more to give.

Arkansas is a better place because Charlotte Tillar Schexnayder is among us.

McClellan vs. Pryor: June 1972

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

In her biography of the late Sen. John L. McClellan, titled “Fearless,” Sherry Laymon begins a chapter with something Paul Greenberg wrote in the Pine Bluff Commercial following McClellan’s death in late 1977.

“Not even the Angel of Death would have dared creep up on John L. McClellan in broad daylight,” Greenberg wrote.

Norma McClellan was unable to wake the senator for breakfast on Nov. 28, 1977. She ran to get her neighbor at the Riviera Apartments at the foot of Cantrell Hill in Little Rock, U.S. District Judge Elsijane T. Roy.

Judge Roy called the authorities. The senator was pronounced dead at about 6:30 a.m.

Laymon writes: “Norma McClellan then called several of McClellan’s staff members, who came up to their apartment to visit with her. After Emon A. Mahony Jr. and Paul Berry arrived at the McClellan apartment and greeted Norma, she told them, ‘I want you to go look in the top drawer there — his underwear drawer.’ She showed them the Valentine boxers that they had purchased for him during the 1972 campaign. Norma told them that McClellan brought the boxers with him to Little Rock to ‘model for my boys.’

“In the days following McClellan’s death, state and national newspapers, members of Congress, former opponents, state leaders and others who had made McClellan’s acquaintance over the years lauded him for his tireless devotion to Arkansas and for his important accomplishments in the Senate, including a record number of Senate investigations (2,808 hours, 831 days and 2,183 witnesses).

“They referenced how the multitude of personal tragedies he had endured turned him into a man of steel and a man of faith, and they mentioned that he performed his duties as a public servant by consistently voting his convictions and doing what he believed to be right.”

Mahony and Berry will join another former McClellan staff member, Bob Snider, for the June meeting of the Political Animals Club in Little Rock as we mark the 40th anniversary of one of the great political races in Arkansas history — the Democratic primary runoff between McClellan and then U.S. Rep. David Pryor in June 1972.

Laymon also will be a member of that panel, which I will moderate. She will autograph copies of “Fearless” before and after the event.

What’s always a good lunch will be included for the $20 cost, which you can pay in cash or by check at the door. We’ll begin at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, June 19, in the Grand Hall of the Governor’s Mansion and conclude by 1 p.m.

You can make reservations by emailing Susan Edwards at and giving her the names of those who will be attending.

Advance reservations are required.

Laymon describes the David Pryor of 1972 as “a young and attractive congressman who hungered for higher office.”

On Oct. 19, 1967, Pryor had attended the John L. McClellan Day festivities in Camden as a first-term congressman.

McClellan told Pryor that day: “I want you to know that when I do leave the Senate, you’re the type of young man that I’d like to see succeed me.”

Laymon writes of similarities between the early careers of Pryor and McClellan.

“In 1934, McClellan quietly drove over the district to learn the intentions of possible candidates and to assess his chances of winning the congressional race. … In 1972, Pryor traveled outside his congressional district, talking to people and steadily building support. Many of Pryor’s friends told him they would support him for re-election, but not in a race against Sen. McClellan; however, he toyed with the idea of challenging McClellan and pursuing his longtime dream of becoming a senator.”

Pryor had to think about the political timing.

“A McClellan win in 1972 would handicap Pryor’s chances of challenging J. William Fulbright in 1974 with the rest of the state since McClellan and Pryor both called south Arkansas home,” Laymon writes. “If Pryor stayed in the House until 1978, his seniority in that chamber might not make the change worthwhile. Also, by 1978 he could lose some of the national momentum he had gained in the early 1970s when he crusaded for nursing home reforms.”

McClellan announced in a Little Rock news conference on Feb. 11, 1972, that he would run for re-election even though he had reached age 76. He emphasized the benefits of seniority with the campaign slogan “Strong Voice for Arkansas.”

Two days later, Bryant attorney Ted Boswell announced his intention to run against McClellan in the Democratic primary.

Pryor’s announcement came on Feb. 19 during a speech in his hometown of Camden.

“McClellan felt betrayed, disappointed and astonished when he learned that Pryor opted to challenge him,” Laymon writes. “McClellan thought highly of David Pryor and considered Pryor a protege. Some of McClellan’s staff believed that had Pryor first advised McClellan of his intentions, the senator would have stepped aside and endorsed Pryor for the office because of his friendship with Pryor’s family. Also, by Pryor not first informing McClellan of his plans, McClellan felt that Pryor did not acknowledge McClellan’s prominence and status in Arkansas politics, which offended McClellan.

“Regardless, McClellan never backed down when challenged, so he campaigned just as hard against Pryor in 1972 as he had against D.D. Glover in 1934, Hattie Caraway in 1938, Jack Holt Sr. in 1942 and Sid McMath in 1954.”

It had been 18 years since someone had seriously challenged McClellan. Rison native John Elrod was named the campaign manager. Berry was selected to drive McClellan to campaign stops across the state.

McClellan had two rules for staff members.

The first: “Don’t ever lie to me.”

The second: “Don’t ever be late.”

Given McClellan’s age, his staff would leave time in the campaign schedule for the senator’s afternoon nap followed by time to prepare for evening appearances.

Back to those underwear.

Laymon writes: “Often staff invited local young men to visit McClellan in his motel suite during those periods, which was the case when the McClellan party stopped in Newport in February 1972. While McClellan showered, a group assembled to meet the senator, but McClellan stayed an extra long time in the bathroom.

“Finally, he attracted Paul Berry’s attention and told Berry, ‘I don’t have any fresh underwear.’

“Berry and Mahony walked to a store across the street and purchased the necessary items, which Berry handed to McClellan enclosed in the store sack so as not to reveal the contents to the roomful of guests. Soon afterward, a blushing Sen. McClellan emerged to meet his visitors for the first time wearing loud boxer shorts covered with big hearts, cupids and arrows. McClellan credited his mischievous staff for his predicament as he circled the room, extending his hand and greeting the amused individuals.”

Television ads and a 30-minute paid television program that showed McClellan fishing were intended to convey the message that the senator’s age and health weren’t issues.

“Critics became less vocal about McClellan’s age after he took the stage and performed a quick, lively dance at Mountain View as musicians played their instruments,” Laymon writes.

She says McClellan would hold the attention of audiences across the state by interjecting stories from “his former campaigns or his experiences as a lawyer and prosecutor. … He said the barbs from his 1972 opponents reminded him of advice that he was given as a young lawyer — when the law is on your side, argue the law; when the facts are on your side, argue the facts; when neither is on your side, find fault with the other lawyers.”

Bill Wilson, now a federal judge, recalls being asked to speak on behalf of an opposing candidate during a rally attended by McClellan at Antioch in White County.

Wilson won a coin toss and could have gone last.

McClellan said, “Aw, you go ahead and go first.”

Wilson did, and it was a mistake.

“That taught me a lesson,” he later said. “I never did that again. After I got through, he wore me out.”

At one joint event, McClellan grabbed Pryor by the arm and said, “Pour it on me, son.”

“His grueling weekly schedule that began early Monday morning and extended until late Saturday night exhausted him physically, emotionally and mentally,” Laymon writes. “He rested on Sundays before repeating the cycle.”

McClellan received 44.7 percent of the vote in the primary. Pryor was second with 41.4 percent, and Boswell was third with 12.6 percent. Foster Johnson received the remainder of the primary votes.

The two-week runoff was on. Those were the “tantamount to” days of Arkansas politics when winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to election. Whoever won the Democratic runoff would have little problem dispatching Republican Wayne Babbitt in the fall.

Conventional wisdom was that an incumbent was finished if forced into a runoff.

“While the Pryor camp exploded with enthusiasm, the people in McClellan’s headquarters became disheartened and dejected as though all the air had been let out of the campaign tires,” Laymon writes. “Patrick Hays, who worked in McClellan’s campaign, compared the senator’s headquarters to a ship without a rudder. After a couple of days, the old steam engine began to sputter and then get a little traction, and as that traction increased, the wheels started rolling a little faster.”

McClellan informed his staff that he could not continue at the current pace for another two weeks. More than 150 key supporters from across the state arrived for a meeting in Little Rock. They committed an additional $280,000 and promised to all hit the trail on the senator’s behalf, covering far more ground than he could alone.

Every favor imaginable was called in as McClellan worked the phones from early in the morning until late at night. Boswell, meanwhile, endorsed Pryor, and Pryor challenged McClellan to a debate.

KATV-TV, Channel 7, in Little Rock agreed to air the debate in prime time the Sunday night before the Tuesday election. McClellan accepted the debate challenge on June 6 under the condition that McClellan would speak last.

“McClellan approached the debate as he did everything he attempted — by working hard, doing his homework and relying upon his years of experience and political savvy,” Laymon writes. “As an effective debater, McClellan habitually opted to speak last when he argued his position on the Senate floor, which allowed him to respond to points raised by his opponents.”

Mahony prepared McClellan a chart of Pryor’s numerous contributions from organized labor. McClellan hit hard in what would be remembered as the cookie jar debate.

“We talk about 50-cent donations out of overall pockets and out of cookie jars — I believe he said cookie jars,” McClellan said, looking at Pryor. “Listen, this is no overall pocket money. This is no cookie jar nickels and dimes. Take a look at this. Big, out-of-state contributions to Pryor. They total $79,877.16. … Yes, that’s a cookie jar — quite a cookie jar indeed.”

Pryor later said, “They wanted to see blood, and it was my blood that they saw, not his.”

McClellan won the runoff with 52 percent of the vote, carrying 52 of the state’s 75 counties.

Primary election 2012: Some day-after thoughts

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

I’ve used it a lot through the years, but it remains one of my favorite quotes.

It was the day after the November general election in 1986. Frank White’s third campaign against Bill Clinton had proved a bust for the GOP with Clinton winning re-election easily.

White had used the colorful Louisiana native Darrell Glascock — the man who had helped Tommy Robinson get elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1984 — as his campaign manager. During that 1986 campaign, Glascock challenged Clinton to a drug test with White practically racing to give a sample first.

On the Wednesday after the election, the Arkansas Gazette sent a reporter to various campaign headquarters to write a story on what the day after is like for political types.

As he cleaned out his desk at White headquarters, Glascock was asked what his plans were.

He answered: “I bought a Cornish hen so I can have all of my friends over for dinner.”

For some on this day after the election, it’s Cornish hen time.

I’m glad I no longer work full time in politics. At my age, I find it much more pleasant to sit back, watch the action and comment, which is just what I did last night from 10 p.m. until 11 p.m. on KARK-TV, Channel 4.

Great job with the election coverage, guys. Channel 4 had reporters all over the state.

It was a long, busy day. I had done commentary on Channel 4’s morning show, arriving at 6:20 a.m. I had gone to Camden during the afternoon so I could host a dinner of business leaders and talk about our state’s fine private colleges and universities.

Driving back to Little Rock from Camden, I listened to election coverage on my car radio. First, I listened to the in-depth coverage from Patrick Thomas, Sandy Sanford and Mark Smith on KELD-FM out of El Dorado. Later, Grant Merrill and Jeremy Hutchinson kept me informed on KEWI-AM out of Benton.

Back to that dinner in Camden: On a picture-perfect night with the humidity low, we sat at the River Woods on the shady banks of the Ouachita River enjoying the feast that James Woods had prepared for us — fried catfish, chicken, grilled sea bass, grilled steaks, alligator sausage from New Orleans. River Woods is James’ private events center. If you ever have the chance to go to his Camden restaurant, Woods Place, do so.

These were well-read, intelligent people who are interested in current affairs. We talked about higher education as we enjoyed the feast. We talked about demographic changes in Arkansas. We talked about the economy. But, on primary election day, we talked very little about politics.

I grew up when we were still in the “tantamount to” era of Arkansas politics — winning the Democratic primary was tantamout to election since Republicans just weren’t much of a factor in our state.

As a boy with a deep, abiding interest in Arkansas politics, primary night was when I would beg my father to take me to the Clark County Courthouse to hear the chairman of the Democratic Party Central Committee read the box-by-box returns.

“Okolona Box A . . .”

“Amity Box B . . .”

It was intoxicating.

When not at the courthouse, I would be glued to Channel 7, watching Steve Barnes and my fellow Arkadelphian Jim Ranchino. KATV news director Jim Pitcock would plan for months in advance. Channel 7 would begin its blanket coverage around 7 p.m. and stay on the air until well past midnight.

These days, the Little Rock television stations generally wait until 10 p.m. for election coverage.

It’s not that Arkansans no longer care about politics.

It’s that the Democratic primary is no longer tantamount to election.

In fact, I’m beginning to think that in many areas, winning the Republican primary might soon be tantamount to election.

The changes during the past several years have been nothing short of breathtaking. We’re living history. As I wrote here on the morning after the November 2010 general election, we’re living in a true two-party Arkansas for the first time in any of our lifetimes.

In at least a dozen of the counties in the 4th Congressional District, more people voted in the Republican primary than in the Democratic primary.

We’re talking about the 4th Congressional District of Arkansas, for gosh sakes, once among the most reliable House districts in the country for Democrats.

Granted, population losses in south Arkansas through the decades have led to counties now being in the district far north and west of its traditional footprint in the piney woods.

Still, let’s go down to the heart of south Arkansas, where I spent much of the day Tuesday.

In Union County, 500 more people voted in the Republican primary than the Democratic primary. I’m not sure that has ever happened there.

Ouachita County — the place where Sen. John L. McClellan once practiced law and where Sen. David Pryor grew up — had 1,100 people vote in the Republican primary. There was a time — not so long ago — when no more than 50 people would have voted in a GOP primary in Ouachita County.

So let’s look ahead to November and then look even further ahead to 2014.

On the congressional side this November, Republican Reps. Steve Womack in the 3rd District and Tim Griffin in the 2nd District seem safe.

Some observers considered Republican Rick Crawford’s 2010 win in the 1st District — Crawford became the first Republican to represent the Delta in Congress since Reconstruction — a fluke. But there was little money raised and little enthusiasm generated by the three candidates in the Democratic primary. Now my old friend Clark Hall from Marvell and Scott Ellington from Jonesboro will beat up on each other for another three weeks in the Democratic runoff campaign while Crawford continues to raise money as only an incumbent can do.

Crawford is by no means out of the woods, but all the rating services in Washington now have that district rated as either leaning Republican or likely Republican.

Back down in the 4th District, Tom Cotton can continue to rake in funds while state Sen. Gene Jeffress and barrister Q. Byrum Hurst beat up on each other for another three weeks on the Democratic side. As was the case in the 1st District Democratic primary, there just didn’t seem to be much energy on the part of Democratic voters in the 4th District.

Regardless of who wins the Jeffress-Hurst race, Cotton will enter the fall campaign as the heavy favorite. He was impressive in winning his primary without a runoff against the organized, energetic Beth Anne Rankin of Magnolia.

A former Democratic legislator — who understands Arkansas and its people — told me yesterday that he thinks Cotton is the next rising star in Arkansas politics. He predicted that Cotton will serve one term in Congress and then be elected governor in 2014.

I do know this: There will be far more interest in the 2014 primaries than there were in the 2012 primaries.

For one thing, Sen. Mark Pryor is up for re-election. If I had to guess now, I would say that Griffin will win the GOP Senate nomination to challenge Pryor.

With no clear front-runner in the race for governor, I expect crowded primaries on either side.

On the Republican side, you could see Cotton, Womack, Lt. Gov. Mark Darr, a business leader or two and maybe even an old warhorse like Asa Hutchinson or Jim Keet run for governor.

On the Democratic side, the attorney general, Dustin McDaniel, has in essence been running for governor since the day he was elected AG. Little Rock businessman John Burkhalter can put a bunch of his own money into the race. Surely there’s a legislator or two on the Democratic side who will run. Maybe even a past statewide candidate or two like a Bill Halter or a Shane Broadway will get in the race.

Consider the fact that this is the first race for governor of Arkansas since 1966 in which we’ll start with neither an incumbent nor a clear favorite.

Mike Beebe was an incumbent in 2010 and the favorite from the start in 2006.

Mike Huckabee was an incumbent in 2002 and 1998.

Jim Guy Tucker was an incumbent in 1994.

Bill Clinton was an incumbent in 1990, 1986 and 1984.

Frank White was an incumbent in 1982, and Clinton was an incumbent in 1980.

Clinton was the strong favorite going into the 1978 race.

David Pryor was an incumbent in 1976 and the clear favorite in the three-man 1974 Democratic primary that included Lt. Gov. Bob Riley (my neighbor from Ouachita Hills) and former Gov. Orval Faubus (whose time had passed).

Dale Bumpers was an incumbent in 1972, and Winthrop Rockefeller was an incumbent in 1970 and 1968.

You must go back to 1966 — almost half a century ago — to find a time when we had a race for governor with neither an established front-runner nor an incumbent. In 1966, Faubus decided not to seek a seventh two-year term. The Democrats nominated Justice Jim Johnson. Rockefeller, who had lost to Faubus in 1964, ran again in ’66 and became the first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

Back to this year for a moment.

Republicans certainly have a chance to earn a majority in one or both houses of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. History in the making.

On the congressional front, if the GOP holds its current seats and picks up the 4th District, the Arkansas delegation in Washington will have gone from 5-1 Democratic at the end of 2010 to 5-1 Republican at the start of 2013.

Whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican or an independent, the pace of political change is amazing from a historical context. As I stated earlier, we’re living in a period that Arkansas historians will be discussing decades from now.

Enough politics for today. That Cornish hen is waiting on me for dinner.

Ed Bethune’s life of adventure

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

Former U.S. Rep. Ed Bethune has been making the rounds in recent months, talking about his book “Jackhammered: A Life of Adventure.”

I don’t do a lot of book reviews on this site, but I can tell you that Bethune’s book is well worth the time you’ll invest in reading it.

Bethune’s parents divorced when he was 8. He’s quick to admit that he was a “problem child” who often found himself in trouble during his formative years in Little Rock.

Bethune was sent to his mother’s hometown of Pocahontas, the thinking being that he would be easier to control in a smaller town. Bethune now says the move “saved my life.”

After graduating from Pocahontas High School in 1953, Bethune joined the U.S. Marine Corps and served for three years. He met the lady who would become his wife and later his most valuable campaign asset, Lana, when both were students at what was then Little Rock Junior College.

Lana was the daughter of famous Arkansas Democrat state Capitol reporter George Douthit.

Ed was 23 and Lana was 21 when they married.

Lana’s painting, titled “The Snotgreen Sea,” adorns the cover of the book.

Ed Bethune went on to earn a business degree and a law degree from the University of Arkansas. He served for four years as an FBI agent and then became a prosecuting attorney in Searcy.

He writes in vivid detail about being involved in Winthrop Rockefeller’s attempt to reform Arkansas politics in the 1960s.

How could anyone who loves Arkansas political history resist his account of a 1968 attempt to remove Conway County Sheriff Marlin Hawkins from office?

Gov. Rockefeller had obtained a legal opinion that said Hawkins was not qualified to hold office. The governor’s aides asked Bethune to escort the new sheriff that WR had appointed, 83-year-old Ralph Childers, to Morrilton.

“By the time Childers took the oath of office in Little Rock, news of his appointment had already reached Conway County,” Bethune writes. “The governor received reports that Marlin’s supporters were gathering around the county courthouse in Morrilton. Some were armed, and they were saying to anyone who would listen that they were not going to let Ralph Childers serve as sheriff of Conway County.

“They intended to block any attempt by him to enter the courthouse office of Sheriff Hawkins. Mr. Childers was willing to go to Conway County, but everyone agreed he needed an escort to help him navigate his way through hostile crowds and make comments to the press explaining why he was sheriff and Marlin Hawkins was not.”

Childers and Bethune boarded a single-engine plane at Central Flying Service in Little Rock and landed at a small grass airfield west of Morrilton.

Bethune describes the scene they found in town: “By the time we got to the courthouse there were well over 500 Hawkins supporters milling around. Most were on foot, and quite a few were armed. They were carrying pistols, rifles and shotguns and making no effort to conceal the weapons. Many others were sitting in their cars and trucks, armed and ready.”

A young Steve Barnes was there to cover the story for KTHV-TV, Channel 11. It was getting late in the afternoon, and Barnes needed to file a story. He asked Bethune and Childers if they would go to the front door of the sheriff’s office and let him shoot some film.

As Bethune neared the sheriff’s office, a young officer jumped out with a sawed-off shotgun, stuck it into Bethune’s stomach and said: “Halt, I’m fixin’ to shoot you.”

“The rookie cop was shaking and his voice was squeaky and shrill,” Bethune writes. “His jittery eyes, only a foot or so from mine, told the story. He was the one with the gun, but he was scared to death. As he pushed the gun harder into my belly, I realized that my life depended on the wiring between the rookie’s brain and his trigger finger, and I did not like the odds.”

Now, that’s good writing.

In 1972, Bethune was the Republican nominee for attorney general against Jim Guy Tucker.

“It was one thing to get rid of the Old Guard by electing Winthrop Rockefeller, but once Orval Faubus was gone, there was no compelling need to vote for Republican candidates,” Bethune writes. “If a living, breathing Democrat was on the ballot for state or local office in Arkansas in 1972, a Republican candidate for that office had no chance to win. Arkansas, a reliably Democrat state since Reconstruction, was not about to open the door for Republicans. Nevertheless, we needed candidates to fight the good fight.”

Bethune carried three counties — Pulaski, White and Searcy. Tucker carried the other 72.

Six years later, Bethune shocked the Arkansas political establishment when he upset Democrat Doug Brandon in the race for Congress in the 2nd District with 51.2 percent of the vote. Bethune carried only three of the nine counties in the district but piled up large margins in Pulaski, White and Cleburne counties.

Bethune served three terms in the House before making an unsuccessful 1984 race against U.S. Sen. David Pryor in which the GOP candidate received 42.7 percent of the vote.

Bethune was chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party from 1986-88. He returned to Washington after George H.W. Bush’s 1988 election as president when Lana was offered the job of social secretary for Vice President Dan Quayle.

Ed Bethune quickly became known in the nation’s capital as the go-to lawyer for Republicans who found themselves in hot water — people like Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay.

In June 1990, Ed and Lana Bethune set sail in Salute, their 31-foot sloop. Their plan was to cross the Atlantic Ocean to Portugal.

The sea had other ideas.

“It was going to be a long night, seven more hours to sunrise,” Bethune writes. “Our little ship tossed about, left to right and up and down. She turned first one way and then another. Every five minutes or so an enormous wave would lift us skyward, and when we reached the top, perched on the crest of the wave, our boat would fall sideways off the crest of the wave and crash, and shudder, against the trough of the wave. The fall of 25 feet felt like a thousand.”

Eventually, the couple was rescued by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crew.

“As we flew away, I saw Salute with the life raft attached,” Bethune writes. “She was still rolling violently with her mainsail collapsed over the side, hanging into the water. I felt sad that we were leaving her, but it was the right decision.

“We lost everything that was on the boat. Lana had tied a waterproof pouch around her waist that held our cash, our credit cards and our driver’s licenses. That, and the clothes on our back, were all we salvaged.

“Salute was now just another speck of white in a sea of large whitecaps; she blended in and soon was lost to sight. It was easy to see why it is so hard for search pilots to find a small sailing vessel in a stormy sea, even when they have exact coordinates fixing the position. Our dream of sailing across the Atlantic was also gone, but we took it in stride; after all, we were safe. We would live to see our children and loved ones again.”

So what about the book’s unusual name?

“A jackhammer is easily the most annoying, distracting racket-making device known to man,” Bethune writes in the preface to the book. “It creates a noise level of 130 decibels — equal to a rock concert, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Rock concerts occasionally produce a discernible melody. Jackhammers do not. Sometimes it takes such a racket to get our attention.”

The sailing trip in which Bethune almost perished got his attention. It forced him to reflect on his past and think about his future and how he practiced his faith.

Back to politics for a moment.

During a speech last month to the Political Animals Club, Bethune talked about what he described as two great upheavals in Arkansas politics. One happened in the 1960s. The other appears to be happening now.

“The battle to build a two-party system began in the 1960s when independents, Republicans and right-thinking Democrats coalesced to defeat the Old Guard machine of Orval Faubus,” he told those at the meeting. “That victory — the first great upheaval in Arkansas politics — cleared the way for a new generation of political leaders, Democrats and Republicans. For the first time since Reconstruction, women, African-Americans, thousands of good people got a chance to participate in government. It was the most important political development of the 20th century.

“Under Gov. Rockefeller’s leadership our prisons were reformed, corruption and illegal gambling were rooted out of Hot Springs, there was transparency in government and election laws were reformed. It was the death knell of the Old Guard and the beginning of the modern Republican Party of Arkansas. But those of us who became Republicans back then had a long road ahead of us.

“When I filed for Congress in 1978, there was not a single elected Republican official in the entire 2nd District of Arkansas — not even a constable or a justice of the peace. Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt was in office, but we had only one elected member in the entire Arkansas Legislature.

“Today, some 40 years later, Arkansans are shedding their long allegiance to the Democratic Party. The trend is undeniable. Imagine a graph of the past 40 years depicting Republican officeholders in red and Democratic officeholders in blue. The red line would be going up, up, up and the blue line would be going down, down, down.

“Since my election in 1978, Arkansans have elected hundreds of Republicans to local and county offices and scores of members to the Arkansas House and Senate. As we near the November election, Republicans are within a few votes of taking charge of one or both chambers of the Legislature for the first time in 138 years.”

Bethune returned to Arkansas from Washington in 2009, and finishing this book became his priority. It’s a captivating read.

Remembering Rockefeller

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

I made the winding drive up Petit Jean Mountain on Arkansas Highway 154 last Friday, headed toward what would turn out to be a delightful lunch with Christy Carpenter, the new CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute.

I never drive up that mountain without thinking about Gov. Rockefeller, my favorite 20th century Arkansas figure.

As the 20th century wound to a close, I was asked by a Little Rock radio show host to list the top 20 events of the previous 100 years as measured by their effect on Arkansas politics.

I ranked the 1957 integration crisis at Little Rock Central High School first, the 1966 election of Rockefeller as governor second and the 1992 election of Bill Clinton as president third.

“What?” the host asked in amazement. “You rank Rockefeller’s election as governor ahead of Clinton’s election as president?”

I explained that without a Winthrop Rockefeller, a Bill Clinton would never have been possible. Neither would have a Dale Bumpers or a David Pryor. You see, Rockefeller’s election in 1966 and his re-election two years later forced the Democratic Party to move away from its segregationist past and make way for a new breed of Arkansas politician. The Jim Johnsons and Marion Cranks were out. The Bumpers and Pryors were in.

Time magazine published a lengthy profile of Rockefeller in December 1966, just weeks before he was sworn in as governor.

The story opened with the famous question and answer from “The Arkansas Traveler.”

“Whar’s this road go to?”

“I been livin’ here fer years ‘n’ I ain’t seen it go no place.”

The article then gave us this brutal assessment of the first five decades of the 20th century in Arkansas: “In a part of the world that had gone no place since the Civil War, the directionless road of vaudevillian fame was far more apt as a symbol of Arkansas’ dead-end economic and political condition than as a sampling of Ozark humor. For all its majestic forests and fertile bottomlands, its bountiful natural resources and the Mississippi on its eastern frontier, the state remained for long decades a kind of limboland.

“Arkansas has never been consistently Southern in temperament despite its historic and geographic ties to the Old Confederacy; though it is more Western in the look of the land and its yield, the state has never embraced the West’s expansionist, assimilative outlook. Instead, in the eyes of the world it seemed aimlessly insular, obdurately independent — and comically backward. As then-Gov. Charles Brough boasted 50 years ago: ‘You could build a wall around the state of Arkansas and its people would be self-sufficient.’

“The trouble was — and is — that Arkansans have lived too long behind self-constructed walls of complacency, mediocrity and provincialism. Well into the 1950s, the state ranked at or near the bottom of virtually every index of progress, from literacy to average income to the number of dentists per capita. Though the Legislature in the ’20s dubbed Arkansas the Wonder State and later more modestly renamed it the Land of Opportunity, by the early ’40s the brightest opportunity for young people moving off the farms lay in a one-way ticket to another state. Those who managed to get a good education found little reward for their learning back home; a competent technician could ask higher wages within half a day’s bus ride in almost any direction. State government was hampered at every level by an anachronistic constitution enacted in 1874, which, as Arkansans point out, was ‘two years before Custer’s last stand.”’

If you think that assessment is tough, read on for what Time had to say about 1957: “Then, in 1957, came a great blow to Arkansas’ backwater mentality. Dwight Eisenhower ordered U.S. paratroopers into Little Rock to resolve an unnecessary and uncharacteristic racial crisis over school integration. Overnight the ugly montage of shrieking segregationists, terrified Negro schoolchildren and the dyspeptic protestations of Gov. Orval Faubus became Arkansas’ image to the world. The psychological effect was traumatic. Having previously prided themselves on relatively good race relations, many Arkansans were deeply repelled by the picture that they presented in the unhappy aftermath of Little Rock. It took nearly a decade to germinate, but the seed of change was planted.”

Then, some bright spots.

Time reported: “In the years since, much has altered in Arkansas — all for the better. A groundswell of technological advance, already under way in the late ’50s, has progressed to the point where industry now plays a major role in the economy, population is rising rather than shrinking, about 50 percent of the state’s 2 million people now live in cities and towns and an estimated 30 percent of the population is accounted for by in-migration.

“For its economic and social transformation, Arkansas owes much to a transplanted Yankee whose surname — connoting vast wealth, liberal Republicanism and cosmopolitan interest — once seemed as alien to the state as fine champagne. Winthrop Rockefeller has not only devoted his time and fortune over the last 13 years to improving the quality of life in Arkansas. He has also succeeded almost singlehanded in renovating its political structure. His electoral victory in November was a historic event. He will become Arkansas’ first Republican governor since 1874.”

This New York native, who had arrived in our state in 1953 and helped transform it during the next two decades, made things possible that otherwise would have taken much longer.

What an unlikely savior.

He was good for Arkansas.

Arkansas, in turn, was good for WR.

Here’s how Time put it in late 1966: “Win Rockefeller, at 54, needs Arkansas as much as it needs him. Indeed, his brothers David, 51, president of New York’s Chase Manhattan Bank, and Nelson, 58, governor of New York, both use the same words to describe his incentives: ‘Win found himself in Arkansas.’ Adds David: ‘It was just what he wanted and needed.”’

David Rockefeller said his brother was “basically the nonconformist. He was rebellious against the stereotype of what we are.”

In a note to the three older brothers — John D. III, Nelson and Laurance — mother Abby Aldrich Rockefeller once wrote: “It seems cruel to me that you big boys should make Winthrop the goat all the time. You know very well that the only way to help him is by being kind to him.”

Winthrop dropped out of Yale his junior year, the only one of the five boys not to finish college. He then worked as a roustabout in the Texas oilfields for 75 cents an hour.

He liked people. That included pretty women.

Bobo Sears came along when WR was 35.

Time noted: “Born Jievute Paulekiute in the Pennsylvania coal country, renamed Eva Paul, then Barbara Paul as a show business title, then Bobo by the chic set she moved up to, the comely blonde had been married to Richard Sears Jr., a well-to-do Bostonian who went into the Foreign Service after the war. After first meeting the onetime model and bit actress in a New York restaurant, Win Rockefeller burbled: ‘I saw her and I knew I was gone.”’

They were married at 14 minutes past midnight on Feb. 14, 1948. Their son, Winthrop Paul, was born seven months later. The couple was separated in 1950 and divorced in Reno in 1954 after Winthrop’s move to Arkansas.

Bobo was the daughter of Lithuanian immigrants. She was born in 1916 in Pennsylvania and grew up near the Chicago stockyards and later in Indiana following her parents’ divorce. She was named Miss Lithuania at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and went to New York to pursue an acting career. She was divorced from Sears in 1947 and married WR the following year.

Time reported in that 1966 profile of Rockefeller: “Of more lasting pain has been the separation from his only child, Winthrop Paul, now 18, who was also elected to office this fall — as president of his senior class at the Herringswell Manor School in England. Though young Win spends part of his holidays with his father, Bobo won custody of the boy and has had him in European schools for the past three years.”

Fortunately, Win Paul later would spend quality time with his father.

Like his father, Win Paul would die of cancer at far too young an age. It was the winter of 1973 when we lost Winthrop Rockefeller and the summer of 2006 when we lost Win Paul.

Win Paul’s mother, meanwhile, lived to age 91 and died May 19, 2008, here in Little Rock, where she had come to be near her daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

Win Paul said this in 2003 when discussing his father: “I know I was lucky to be born a Rockefeller, but I am luckier to have been born Winthrop Rockefeller’s son. Dad’s greatest gift to me was not my last name but my first because with that name he left me a great heritage and at the same time an equally great challenge to follow his vision and shape my own, but always to serve, and do so with love.”

We’re fortunate the Rockefellers came our way.

The Political Animals

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

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 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.

Arkansas goes broke

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

The New York Times on Sunday published an article with the headline “The State That Went Bust.”

In case you’re wondering, that state was Arkansas.

Here was the subhead: “In 1933, Arkansas went ‘plain, flat broke.’ The fallout — on roads, spending and image — lasted for decades.”

And here was how the article by Monica Davey put Arkansas’ history into context as states across the nation deal with huge budget deficits: “As the states dream up budget plans for a new year, some find themselves staring at deficits in the billions of dollars, vanishing federal stimulus funds, mounting health care costs, their own struggling cities and a canyon of underfunded pension liabilities ahead.

“That — meshed with images from the European debt crisis — has led some to begin fretting about the possibility, however remote, that a state, unable to pay its bills, might tumble into default. Some policymakers have begun quietly discussing whether states should be allowed to seek bankruptcy protection, a legal status granted to qualifying taxation districts, towns, cities and counties but not to entire states.

“Yet plenty of experts on municipal bonds and government finance — who view as alarmist the notion that a state may default on its obligations — note that it has been decades since any state actually defaulted on its bonds, or, in their view, even came close. As it happens, the most recent such collapse occurred during the Great Depression when Arkansas found itself, in the words of one state historian, ‘plain, flat broke.’ There are familiar threads then and now, not least of all the overlay of a national financial slump.”

It just so happened that I was having an unhealthy but delightful breakfast Monday morning with Justice Robert L. Brown of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Justice Brown is a distinguished jurist and a great writer, having received his bachelor’s degree from the University of the South (Sewanee), his master’s degree from Columbia University and his law degree from the University of Virginia.

The University of Arkansas Press recently published his book “Defining Moments,” which explores how Arkansas governors since Sid McMath have acted in times of crisis. He explores McMath’s battles with the Dixiecrats, Francis Cherry’s attempts to label an opponent a Communist, Orval Faubus’ actions at Little Rock Central High School in 1957, Winthrop Rockefeller’s reaction to the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Dale Bumpers’ battles against political corruption, David Pryor’s fight against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Frank White’s endorsement of creationism, Bill Clinton’s education reforms, Jim Guy Tucker’s Medicaid reforms and Mike Huckabee’s education reforms.

Brown, who worked for both Bumpers and Tucker, lamented the fact that the Times article, while accurate in its depiction of Arkansas’ past, didn’t do enough to talk about how well the state currently stacks up against other states when it comes to fiscal issues.

The article did go this far: “For the record, Arkansas 2011 is not facing the level of economic misery of some other places. State officials are predicting a slight rise in revenue. Some leaders are talking of cutting the sales tax rate on groceries. And the state owes 2.6 percent of its spending — among the lowest in the country — to debt interest.

“After 1933, Arkansas officials eventually restructured their debt, under pressure from unhappy bondholders who had filed suit. But the fallout would leave its mark for years.”

Indeed, when I was working in the governor’s office, there was a great deal of internal opposition at the state Capitol to passing the massive bond issue in 1999 to rebuild our crumbling interstate highways. Since 1933, there had been a built-in aversion to going into debt.

Davey quoted two of my favorite Arkansas historians, C. Fred Williams of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Ben Johnson of Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia.

In an attempt to pull Arkansas out of the economic doldrums and Arkansans out of the mud, state government pushed road building efforts throughout the 1920s. Local road districts borrowed money. When a number of the districts ran into trouble paying off the debts, the state stepped in to help.

Then came the Great Flood of 1927.

Next came the Crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression.

Add to that a drought that decimated the state’s cotton crop.

Davey wrote: “By some historians’ estimates, the state owed half its annual revenue to debt payments, and others say the payments were even higher. At one point, the state’s treasurer reported that Arkansas’ general revenue fund showed a balance of $4.62, Dr. Johnson said, and by 1933, Arkansas could not make its bond payments.”

Williams told the Times writer that 1933 “was a good lesson, one of those things that’s hard to learn about debt until it happens to you. But it also held back ambitions.”

Davey concluded: “Whatever political wind had rolled in with so much excitement (and borrowing) in the 1920s turned the other way. New leaders promised to retrench. They adopted rules that required more approval for any borrowing. One state leader even briefly entertained a plan to end the state’s support of education after eighth grade as one more way to save, Dr. Johnson said.

“In the eyes of John A. Dominick, a professor of banking and finance at the University of Arkansas, a series of financial struggles — including the experience of 1933 — has created an unwritten tenet that still ripples through the state’s culture: Never spend more than you have.”

Justice Brown and I share a propensity for focusing on the good things about our state since so many others focus on the negative. Justice Brown, in fact, has gone so far as to refuse to mention in his speeches our state’s supposed inferiority complex.

What we both regretted is that a national audience did not have a chance to read about the 1945 passage of one of the most masterful pieces of legislation in the state’s history, the Arkansas Revenue Stabilization Act.

During Gov. Ben Laney’s first year in office (the new governor from Magnolia became known as Businessman Ben), what’s now simply known as Revenue Stabilization was passed by the Legislature. The act requires the state to prioritize spending in categories. Category A includes the things that must be funded, Category B contains items that are not as high a priority and so on.

When state revenues fall short of projections, items in lower categories simply aren’t funded. In fiscal year 2010, for example, as the Great Recession battered states across the country, Arkansas funded 100 percent of Category A and just 54 percent of Category B.

This innovative model has prevented Arkansas from experiencing the problems of most other states. The model makes it relatively simple to adjust to changes in state revenues.

Think how much better off California would be with its own version of the Arkansas Revenue Stabilization Act.

Arkansas learned its lesson the hard way during the Great Depression.

“Perhaps the largest protection against a repeat of Arkansas 1933 is the simplest: states have straightforward — if not always politically palatable — ways to pay their obligations if problems arise,” Davey wrote. “They can raise taxes or cut spending. Arkansas had those options too, but its costs had grown monstrous (for a while, the state had among the highest per capita debt in the nation), and the prospect of new taxes seemed impossible at a moment when per capita income was among the lowest in the country and the state’s revenues were rapidly shriveling.”

During the current legislative session, you will hear a lot of complaining about how much tighter budgets are now than they were when Gov. Mike Beebe took office in 2007.

But look around the country at what other state legislatures are facing. In a national context, Arkansas shines as a model of fiscal responsibility and restraint.

Part of the credit for that must go to the governor and the legislators who worked at the state Capitol in 1945 during the waning days of World War II.

The day after: Some political thoughts

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

I rarely write about politics on this blog.

That sometimes comes as a surprise to those who know me since I’ve spent much of my career in politics and continue to love the political game.

There are several reasons why I don’t write about politics on a regular basis. For one thing, there are too many columnists, bloggers and other commentators already out there writing millions of words and using thousands of hours of valuable air time to express their views. Why add to that already crowded mix?

From the start, I was determined to make this blog something different — a few longer posts each week rather than multiple short posts, a focus on the things (from football to barbecue) that make this part of the country such a great place to live.

Another reason I don’t express my poltical views here is that I figure you really don’t care what I think. As we get older and wiser, we hopefully become a bit more humble. Who really cares what I think about health care reform, for instance? I won’t burden you with my political views.

All of that said, I do have some thoughts about what happened yesterday in Arkansas. Maybe I can add some perspective. I’m not one to exaggerate, but for the first time I believe we’re living in a true two-party state.

Arkansas politics traditionally have been personality based. And the Republicans had some personalities rise to the top through the years — a Winthrop Rockefeller here, a Mike Huckabee there. What happened yesterday, however, was different from anything that has occurred in my 51 years here. In a state where a lot of people have voted straight-party tickets for Democrats, we saw thousands of people vote straight-party tickets for Republicans.

That’s new.

Overnight, we’ve gone from five Democrats and one Republican in our congressional delegation to four Republicans and two Democrats.

We’ve gone from all seven statewide constitutional officers being Democrats to three of the seven being Republicans.

We’ve gone from one of the most heavily Democratic legislatures in the country to an Arkansas Legislature in which the Democrats will hold majorities of only about 55-45 in the House and 20-15 in the Senate. That puts Republicans in a position to capture majorities in both houses of the Legislature in the next one or two election cycles.

Sit back, take a deep breath and think of the enormity of all this.

As I ran my mouth last night in the KUAR-FM studio (thanks to those of you who tuned in), I realized I was witnessing history. I had never seen a Republican elected to Congress from the Delta of east Arkansas, for instance. And only once before had I ever watched a Republican declare victory in a U.S. Senate race in this state.

The scope of things didn’t really sink in, though, until this morning when I realized that Republicans had won every contested state Senate seat, had won the lieutenant governor’s office and had won the secretary of state’s office in addition to the land commissioner’s office.

That’s not to mention the fact that my home county — Clark County — had voted to go wet. Now there’s something I really never thought I would see.

Is this Arkansas? Well, yes. It’s the new Arkansas.

Will it be a better Arkansas? That’s yet to be determined.

Having worked in political campaigns and having worked in government, I can tell you that governing is a far different animal than running for office. Simply winning office doesn’t ensure you’ll be successful serving in office. If you don’t believe me, ask President Obama.

Arkansas Republicans must help govern now.

For my friends in both parties, I say this: Don’t ever abandon your principles. But leave the highly partisan rhetoric at the door now that the campaigns have ended and do what’s best for Arkansas. When I worked for Mike Huckabee in the governor’s office, we had a hypothetical question we would ask ourselves in an attempt to remain grounded: “What does this mean for that couple eating breakfast this morning in Dermott?”

As a Republican administration dealing with a heavily Democratic Legislature, we never would have accomplished anything without reaching across party lines on a daily basis and forging compromises. Because we did that, Mike Huckabee will, I believe, be remembered as one of the most successful governors in Arkansas history.

The 2011 legislative session won’t be nearly as pleasant for Gov. Mike Beebe as the 2007 and 2009 sessions were. There’s a lot less money and a lot more Republicans. Given his many years as a legislator, though, I’m confident Beebe will be able to forge compromises. The strategies will have to change, but the goal of building a better Arkansas will remain the same. I have confidence in this governor.

Competition generally is a good thing. I suspect I was a better newspaperman, for example, when I was working for the Arkansas Democrat and having to compete daily against the Arkansas Gazette than I was when I worked for the monopoly Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

And I think competition will be a good thing in Arkansas politics as long as officeholders ask themselves each morning what they’re doing for that couple eating breakfast in Dermott (or Dell, Decatur or Doddridge to bring the other three corners of our state into the mix).

Back in the spring I wrote about how much I enjoy election nights. I’ve found that I enjoy the day after almost as much now — reading the stories, analyzing the returns, comparing notes with fellow political animals. Considering how dry it has been, I love watching the rain out my offfice window today. But I realize that the rainy day likely adds to the sadness of those candidates and campaign workers who were involved in losing efforts.

Twice I’ve worked full time in losing campaigns. That means I woke up the morning after without a job.

The first time was 1984 when I worked for Judy Petty, the Republican candidate in the 2nd Congressional District who lost to then-Democrat Tommy Robinson. I remember how much a call that next morning from Skip Rutherford meant to me. Skip, a Democrat but a friend first and foremost, said: “I’ve been there the morning after losing a campaign. You think nobody in the world cares about you. I wanted you to know I’m thinking of you.”

I have friends in both parties — people like Democrat Shane Broadway and Republican Beth Anne Rankin — who lost. Good friend Kelly Boyd appears to have lost his legislative race by fewer than 30 votes. To all of them, I say this: Thanks for putting your name out there and running. We need good people running for office, and you’re good people. I don’t have the guts to run. I’m glad you did.

I’m reminded of a story the Arkansas Gazette put together the day after the 1986 election. The reporter went to various campaign offices that Wednesday to see what people were doing and saying. Darrell Glascock had run Frank White’s third, final and worst campaign against Bill Clinton. White had been wiped out as the incumbent Clinton won with 64 percent of the vote.

Glascock was asked what he would do now.

He replied: “I’m going to buy a Cornish hen and have all my friends over for dinner.”

Some final thoughts on this rainy day when it finally feels like fall:

— I was truly saddened by state Sen. Joyce Elliott’s refusal to concede defeat when she came out shortly after 10 p.m. During my years at the state Capitol, I found Joyce to be an excellent legislator with whom to work. She’s smart, articulate and dedicated to those things in which she believes. On Tuesday night, she forgot her manners. It had been obvious since shortly after the polls closed (actually it had been obvious for weeks) that Tim Griffin would be the next congressman from the 2nd District. There’s a certain election night etiquette that should be followed in a civilized society. Admitting the obvious and congratulating your opponent is part of the process. Joyce made all the wrong moves at a time when she had a chance to be classy and graceful with a statewide television audience tuned in. I can understand why it’s easy for candidates to become a bit delusional; after all, they’ve invested more than anyone. But those advising Sen. Elliott should have forced the issue. The lasting impression for thousands of Arkansans will be of that graceless exit, and that’s unfortunate. Tim did exactly the right thing by coming out and declaring victory as soon as it became obvious that his opponent could not bring herself to say “congratulations.”

— The three best-run campaigns were those of Beebe, Griffin and John Boozman. They were disciplined and focused throughout, and focus is a tough thing to maintain in the rough and tumble of a campaign. As an old politico, my hat is off to those involved in each of those campaigns.

 — It appears Boozman will finish with about 58 percent of the vote. That means I can hold onto one of my few claims to fame. Gov. Huckabee gave me the honor of managing his 1998 campaign. We finished with almost 60 percent of the vote. I can still say I managed the campaign that received the highest percentage of the vote of any statewide GOP campaign in Arkansas history.

Enough politics. Back to football tomorrow.

Election coverage tonight on KUAR-FM, 89.1

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

On what promises to be a historic election night in Arkansas, I hope you will consider tuning in KUAR-FM, 89.1, in Little Rock beginning at 8 p.m.

Dr. Jay Barth of Hendrix College and I will provide what I hope will be the best election night media analysis you can find in this state on either radio or television.

Kelly MacNeil will anchor the coverage from the studio. Ron Breeding and Michael Hibblen, two of the most talented radio journalists in the country, will be reporting from the field.

If you want to know what’s going on around Arkansas, 89.1 FM is the place to be.

As the great Charles Osgood of CBS would say, I’ll see you on the radio.

Election Night

Monday, May 17th, 2010

I’ve always loved Election Night.

I capitalize “Election Night” because it’s an “event” for a political junkie like me — kind of like the Super Bowl or the Final Four.

On Tuesday evening, at the end of one of the most interesting primary seasons in years , I’ll be on KUAR-FM, 89.1, the NPR affiliate in Little Rock.

KUAR does an outstanding job covering Arkansas news. I’m honored to be a part of the station’s Election Night team. Ron Breeding, John Brummett and I will go live at 8 p.m. Tuesday and stay on the air as long as necessary. I hope you have a chance to tune in.

I’m glad I received the invitation to be in the KUAR studios. Frankly, I’m not sure what I would do if I had to sit at home on an Election Night. It has been a long time since I wasn’t busy on an Election Night.

My father wasn’t a political animal. Far from it. He always voted, but his interests were his business, his family, sports, hunting and fishing. I, however, had been bitten by the political bug. When I was a boy, he would answer my pleas and take me down to the Clark County Courthouse to listen to Mr. Jim Gooch, the chairman of the Clark County Democratic Central Committee, read the box-by-box returns.

“Amity Box A. . .

“Whelen Springs. . .

“Curtis. . .”

It was exciting, those Democratic primary nights. All of the action, of course, was in the Democratic primary. I only knew one Republican in Clark County when I was a boy. There were no local races in November.

The local races were where the action was. And there were some great names running for office in those days — Jack Daniels, Shine Duce, Edgar Ball.

Once in the courtroom of the 1899 courthouse, I would look up at the judge’s chair and see John Riggle sitting there, anchoring the live coverage on KVRC-AM, 1240. I remember thinking how much I would love to do that one of these days — sit in that big chair, knowing that people all over the county — from Gurdon to Alpine — were listening to your voice. That was the media big time, my friend.

By the spring of 1978, my senior year in high school, I was working at KVRC. I anchored Election Night coverage from the studio (which was situated in a pasture just south of town), and Mr. Riggle still handled things from the big chair down at the courthouse. That was the year of the titanic Democratic Senate primary that saw our governor (David Pryor) and two of the state’s four members of the U.S. House of Representatives (Ray Thornton in the 4th District and Jim Guy Tucker in the 2nd District) all going for the late John L. McClellan’s seat.

All the county returns were in on primary night, and Mr. Riggle had left the courthouse for home.

I, however, kept the station on the air as we waited to determine who would be in the Senate runoff against Gov. Pryor. We normally signed off at 11 p.m. but could stay on the air when necessary.

I dipped in and out of the coverage being supplied by the Arkansas Radio Network while also reading stories off The Associated Press wire.

Well after midnight, the phone in the studio rang.

It was Mr. Riggle.

“Why are you still on the air?” he asked.

“I was waiting to see whether it would be Thornton or Tucker in the runoff,” I answered.

“Go ahead and sign that mother goose off and get some sleep,” he ordered.

I did as I was told, signing off with these words: “Based on the latest returns I have available, it looks like it will be Pryor vs. Thornton in the runoff.”

I woke up the next morning to discover it was Pryor vs. Tucker.

Thirty-two years later, I serve on boards with both Sen. Pryor and Gov. Tucker. Yes, Arkansas is a small world.

By November 1978, I was a college freshman at Ouachita. My favorite course that first semester of college was taught by Jim Ranchino, who at the time was the state’s most noted political pollster and analyst in addition to being a political science professor. Those of us who were true political junkies would hang out in his office after class. As always, he would be spending Election Night on KATV, Channel 7, in Little Rock with Steve Barnes. But Ranchino also had a private plane leased to take him after KATV had completed its coverage to what he said would be a victory party for an out-of-state campaign on which he was working.

“How do you know it will be a victory?” I asked him that morning.

“I’m working for them, aren’t I?” he replied with a smile.

I was back in the KVRC studio that Election Night when a bulletin printed out early in the evening on the AP wire. It read that Jim Ranchino had died of a massive heart attack while walking onto the set at KATV.

I didn’t want to believe it. I wanted to think the AP had made a huge mistake.

I called the KATV newsroom to confirm the report. The person who answered the phone said it was true.

I slowly hung up the phone. I turned on my microphone and, through my tears, read the sad news on KVRC, the station in the town that Jim Ranchino called home. The rest of that evening — the night Bill Clinton was first elected governor — was a bit of a blur.

In 1980, my childhood wish was granted. Mr. Riggle informed me that he had grown weary of anchoring the box-by-box returns from the courthouse. He asked me to handle the task. So during the primary and the general elections, someone other than John Riggle got to sit in the judge’s chair. It was me. And it was a thrill for a 20-year-old who had grown up spending election nights in that courtroom.

In November of that year, as the county results rolled in, we kept hearing that Clinton was in trouble. He wasn’t in trouble in reliably Democratic Clark County, of course. But statewide, it was a different story.

Surely this Republican named Frank White couldn’t beat Clinton.

Surely not.

It has been fun being back on the radio for Election Night in recent years. Live radio is great fun.

During the 2008 and 2006 elections, I was in the KARN studios as an Election Night analyst.

For the elections of 1996-2004, when I was on the staff of Gov. Mike Huckabee, I was wherever the governor was on Election Night. If he were on the ballot, it meant being at the site of his election night party. In November 1998, when I was his campaign manager, that was the Embassy Suites in west Little Rock. In 2002, it was the Clear Channel Metroplex.

Even though we knew we were going to win in 1998, Election Night was particularly maddening since I had served as the campaign manager. As campaign manager, you worry about everything. I had devoted eight months of my life to the project and was determined that we receive an overwhelming percentage of the vote. As it turns out, we finished with almost 60 percent, the highest percentage ever received by a Republican gubernatorial nominee in Arkansas.

Huckabee wasn’t on the ballot in 2000 or 2004 but was in high demand for media interviews on those presidential election nights.

In November 2000, we operated from a suite at what was then the Excelsior Hotel (now the Peabody) since the Bush-Cheney party was downstairs. I answered the phone at one point, and it was Karl Rove. He was calling from Austin and asking for the governor. The television networks, skittish after having had to pull back on their initial projections that Al Gore had won Florida, would not yet call Arkansas. Huckabee assured Rove that Arkansas was firmly in the Bush camp. Without Arkansas’ six electoral votes, of course, Florida wouldn’t have mattered. Al Gore would have been elected president by carrying either Bill Clinton’s Arkansas or Gore’s home state of Tennessee. He carried neither.

On that wild night, I couldn’t pull myself away from the television. I finally left the hotel at 3:30 a.m. to make the short drive home, where I continued to watch the vote count in Florida until time to go to work. I never went to bed that evening.

Four years later, we had a suite at the Holiday Inn Presidential in downtown Little Rock. I stayed there watching network coverage of the George Bush win over John Kerry until 4 a.m.

In 1992, 1994 and for the primary in 1996, I was tied to my desk at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, writing the lead story in my job as political editor for the next day’s editions. Clinton’s election in November 1992, of course, remains the most memorable of those Election Nights.

Knowing that the next day’s front page would be one of the most famous newspaper front pages in Arkansas history, I decided to take the approach that The New York Times had taken when man first landed on the moon in 1969. The event was so momentous that there would be no need to embellish the lead paragraph.

John Noble Wilford began his July 21, 1969, story this way: “Men have landed and walked on the moon.”

The story about the first Arkansan to ever be elected president should get straight to the point, I decided. Our executive editor agreed.

Thus the lead paragraph in the lead story of the Nov. 4, 1992, edition read: “Gov. Bill Clinton was elected president of the United States on Tuesday.”

More than 17 years after the fact, I still think it was the correct lead sentence.

In 1984 and 1990, I had worked on campaigns (both losing campaigns, as it turned out), so Election Night found me doing the ol’ “still waiting on more results” routine during radio and television interviews.

In 1988, as Washington correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat, I made the trip to Houston to be at George H.W. Bush’s headquarters on the night he was elected president. Two years earlier, I had stayed in Washington, gathering comments on the 1986 midterm elections from both the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee.

I’ve gone on too long. It’s just that the Election Night memories always come flooding back.

Please share your favorite Election Night memories.

And remember to vote Tuesday. Then, join Ron, John and me on 89.1 FM at 8 p.m. as the returns start coming in. We’ll have fun.