POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 22, 2013
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. » When it came time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of a dam on the Little Red River this fall, former President Bill Clinton came running. But once he arrived in the state, Clinton had more on his mind than just public works.
He summoned Mike Ross, who had driven him around rural Arkansas during his race for governor in 1982 and is now running for governor himself, to his presidential library for a visit.
"I thought I was going over for a 15-minute meeting with him and I left two hours later," said Ross, recalling a conversation during which Clinton spoke about everything from Ross' fundraising to his county-level organization and the policy distinctions he could draw with his Republican rival.
Clinton may be a globe-trotting citizen of the world, but these days he is focusing on his home state, and for good reason: The election ballot for next year looks like a Clinton political family tree, full of the former president's protigis and ex-staff members and family friends.
Sen. Mark Pryor, who was 11 when he first met Clinton and whose father has been a close ally of the president's for four decades, is fighting for re-election. James Lee Witt, whom Clinton met in a Little League dugout in 1974 and eventually named director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is running for Congress. And Patrick Henry Hays, a protigi and one of a band of locals who stumped on Clinton's behalf in 1992, calling themselves Arkansas Travelers, is also seeking a House seat.
(And, in an eerie echo of Clinton eras past, Ross' likely opponent in the race for governor is Asa Hutchinson, the former congressman who helped lead the effort to impeach the president in 1998.)
While there is little doubt about how much Clinton cares about Arkansas, the election outcome could reveal how much Arkansas - a notably different state politically than the one he left 20 years ago - still cares about him, and whether those Democrats who embraced his approach to politics can hold on in a state that is drifting away from their party and is strikingly hostile to President Barack Obama.
A new generation of voters has no memory of Clinton's tenure as governor, and the unpopularity of Obama's health care law has further imperiled Democratic candidates here.
Clinton has flung himself into the 2014 campaign, offering strategy, policy proposals, and sometimes intervention. This year, without telling Pryor, the former president called Howard Wolfson, the top political aide to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, to personally plead with him to stop TV ads the mayor's gun-control group was airing in Arkansas criticizing the senator for his position on gun restrictions, Pryor said. He found out about the call, which was unsuccessful, only when Clinton told him about it.
The former president hosted a kickoff fundraising reception for Pryor in March, and plans to help the other candidates raise money too.
"He's insatiably curious about what's going on locally," Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat who cannot run again because of term limits, said of Clinton, with whom he speaks about twice a month. Of the many Democrats running next year, Beebe said, "Clinton got them started with the idea of even wanting to be in politics."
When Clinton began his political career at 28 in the mid-1970s, Arkansas, like the rest of the South, clung to a strongly Democratic identity, with a fiercely populist streak, especially in state and local elections. These days, Republicans are ascendant in state races and Obama is profoundly unpopular - an Arkansas poll recently recorded his approval rating at 29 percent. Many here view the president as distant from them, with his liberal policies and Chicago roots, and Arkansas lacks a tradition of supporting black candidates in statewide races. During Obama's tenure, a congressional delegation that until recently comprised five Democrats and one Republican now has five Republicans and Pryor.
"Obama, Obama, Obama," is how Pryor, in an interview, described the campaign strategy of his Republican rival, Rep. Tom Cotton.
Given Obama's low approval here, Democrats are subtly invoking the Clinton name, sometimes slyly suggesting to voters that the current occupant of the White House may soon turn the keys over to Hillary Rodham Clinton, should she run for president.
Obama will be in office for only three more years, Pryor noted with a smile during the interview, adding, "Who's there the next four years?"
Both the former president and his wife are expected to take to the campaign trail here in the months ahead, and, if they help Democrats win, it could underscore their enduring influence in Arkansas, and suggest that she could be competitive in a state Democrats have lost ever since Clinton left the White House. However, a string of Democratic losses next year could indicate that Arkansas is joining its Southern neighbors in becoming a Republican-dominated state and could raise questions about the currency of the Clinton legacy.
"The 2014 election in Arkansas is not going to be about who is the president, it's about who is going to be the president," said James L. Rutherford, the dean of the University of Arkansas graduate school, which is named for Clinton, and a longtime friend of the former president's.
To visit this cozy capital and bring up Clinton's name is an invitation for storytelling and unending one-upmanship. Seemingly every Democrat here has an honest-to-god true story of just how tied in Clinton still is in Arkansas. There was the time he checked in on the election returns for Stone County sheriff, even though he was overseas; or when, early on election night in 2002, he phoned former Sen. David Pryor, Mark's father, and asked him to call the courthouse in Magnolia and check on a bellwether precinct in the county. A former aide in the state keeps track of deaths and funerals, and Clinton regularly sends personal condolence notes.
A day after Clinton spoke at the Greers Ferry Dam commemoration in October, he called Witt, whose wife had died a few weeks earlier after a long illness. After accepting Clinton's sympathies, Witt told the former president that he had all but decided to run for an open House seat next year.
"He got very excited," said Witt, who was the head of Arkansas' emergency services for Clinton before joining him in Washington. "He was telling stories about when he ran for governor here and what counties he won by down there and what counties he lost and by what percentages." Clinton's conclusion: "He said, 'You know what, you can win that race.'"
He returns to the state every six weeks or so - in May he attended a Fleetwood Mac concert in a basketball arena in North Little Rock. When in town, he stays in what aides call "the executive suite," an apartment atop the presidential library; local lore has it that Arkansans know whether he is here by watching the lights in the apartment.
But while Clinton has always stayed in touch, no other Arkansas election may be as personally important to him as 2014: Ross, for example, steered Clinton around Arkansas in a Chevy Citation for nearly two years, bonding with his boss in between campaign stops as Clinton recaptured the governorship in 1982.
Clinton met Mark Pryor in 1974, when the former president was running for Congress and Pryor's father for governor. Pryor, 50, is now considered among the most vulnerable senators in the country. And it is not just the top of the ticket that Clinton and his loyalists are following. The Southern Progress Fund, a group formed to revive Southern Democrats and run by two Arkansans who are former aides to Clinton, is quietly preparing to put money into state legislative races here and will have two paid staff members on the ground early next year.
Those who follow politics closely here are uncertain how much sway the former president still has with voters.
Pryor argued that the legacy of Clinton's policies is what is most powerful.
"People are very proud in our state that President Clinton balanced the budget," he said. "President Bush didn't, President Obama hasn't."
But even Pryor acknowledged that he was uncertain what campaign appearances by Clinton would mean.
"I don't know if that translates into votes in our state," he said, noting that Arkansas was "very independent-minded."
One thing is for sure: Residents will be seeing a lot of Clinton. On Thursday, the former president was back, appearing at a ceremony marking the LED lighting of a bridge that crosses the Arkansas River near his library, and sounding a bit like the young politician he once was, eager to grab the attention of the bigger world around him.
"I dreamed of a time when at night, we would have this bridge lit," Clinton told the crowd. "And everybody who landed in an airplane in Little Rock at night would fly over the library lit and the bridge lit, and would see us and our potential and our values in a way that they had never seen it before."
Jonathan Martin, New York Times