Columns » John Brummett

Berry looks high, low for Halter

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I asked Marion Berry, the culturally conservative and economically populist Democratic congressman from eastern Arkansas, if I’d heard correctly. Had he indeed been going around his 1st Congressional District pleading with constituents not to nominate Bill Halter for lieutenant governor, but Paragould’s Tim Wooldridge instead?

Not in so many words, the feisty, slow-talking Blue Dog said, essentially.

This is what the veteran Appropriations Committee member said, actually: “I have a very strong belief — well, one thing I always admired about Bill Clinton was that he didn’t forget the country people, but he came to see them where they lived and worked. He came to Newton County and Searcy County. I always had a great deal of respect for that. I think you’ve got to do that if you’re going to represent all the people.

“And one thing you might not know about me, or maybe you do, is that if I’m not in Washington, I’m out here in the district all the time. I’ll be in Cabot, then I’ll be in Jacksonport, then I’ll spend the night at Mountain View.

“I’ve seen Bill Halter outside Little Rock one time, and that was the coon supper.”

Berry said he’d seen the “rest of ’em,” meaning the other Democratic candidates for statewide office — for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and treasurer — “all the time.”

Halter insists he travels the state extensively. He’s even encouraged me to go with him to see for myself. Still, one could hardly deny that the dominant element of his campaign has been extensive and expensive television advertising.

So, was Berry saying he preferred Wooldridge because Halter wasn’t making a sufficient personal effort among rural voters from the Delta to the hills of north-central Arkansas, whom Berry represents in Congress?

“I haven’t said it just that way,” the congressman replied. “But if they imply that from what I’ve said, then I’m not going to argue with them.”

There seems to be a bit of a tug-of-war in state Democratic polities. The new young chairman, Jason Willett, is a Berry disciple from eastern Arkansas, and, as such, identified mostly with that culturally conservative, economically populist and rural-focused philosophy, one that Wooldridge — a Church of Christ lay preacher from Paragould who once introduced a bill to reinstate public hanging — seems to represent.

But on Friday, four former state Democratic chairmen identified with a more moderate or center-left philosophy concentrated historically in central Arkansas — Ron Oliver, Herby Branscum, Vaughn McQuary and Betsey Wright — took the rather extraordinary step of jointly endorsing Halter.

The Berry faction thinks metropolitan liberals are disconnected from rural Arkansas. The competing faction thinks the Berry faction is not sufficiently “progressive.” The only thing they agree on is that they can’t stand Republicans, be they named Bush, Huckabee, Hutchinson or Holt.

Successful Arkansas Democrats have been those who bridged this gap with force of personality and versatility of rhetoric. Those would be Clinton, Dale Bumpers, David Pryor, Mark Pryor, Blanche Lincoln and — or so Mike Beebe hopes — Mike Beebe.

Berry pleaded that I not tie his rather clear preference in the lieutenant governor’s runoff around Willett’s supposedly neutral neck as state chairman.

“Jason calls me about once a day to try to keep me from saying something that’s going to get me in trouble,” Berry said. “In fact, when he sees this article, I suspect he’s going to say, ‘Oh, Lord, I wish Marion had kept his mouth shut.’”

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