- ON THE HOME FRONT: Sen. Mark Pryor talks to constituents at a Little Rock Starbucks.
WASHINGTON — For someone so politically impregnable he faces no major party opposition for re-election, it's surprisingly easy to find negative comments on the Internet about Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor.
They come largely from liberal Democrats, many critical of his votes in his first six-year term on national security, judicial appointments and a smattering of other matters.
While he supports the Democratic line on most issues, Pryor is not afraid to tack right, if, as he says, he believes it's the right thing to do.
Pryor says it's all in keeping with the pledge he made when he first ran for the Senate in 2002 “to find common ground [with the other party] and be a voice of reason.”
Pryor's willingness to offend the liberal wing of his party goes down as one of the notable elements of his first term. It illustrates how he put together a voting record that scared Republicans away from opposing him, political analysts say. And it serves as a blueprint of how a Democrat can cater to a Southern constituency.
The latest example: proposed changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that would give giant phone companies immunity from being sued for assistance in eavesdropping and wiretapping that they gave the government over the last seven years in the war on terror.
Pryor supports granting such immunity, while more liberal senators such as Russell Feingold of Wisconsin and Hillary Clinton of New York, as well as scores of liberal bloggers and interest groups, did not.
He was one of only 18 Democrats to vote for an attempt at FISA changes earlier this year. Pryor voted against the majority of Democrats again on July 9 when the Senate took up the issue once more and passed the controversial amendments.
For Pryor, it's the kind of stance that sends self-proclaimed progressives and civil liberties advocates, as well as some interest groups, howling.
“It's disappointing,” said Rita Sklar, executive director of the Arkansas affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU and ACORN are also disappointed with Pryor for not supporting a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, although he once indicated he would.
Overall, Pryor's record on ACORN's concerns is “mixed,” at best, said Maxine Nelson, Arkansas president of the grassroots lobby for low-income people.
When Pryor voted for FISA amendments earlier this year, the website progressivepatriots.com said “Senator Mark Pryor abandoned moderation and liberty to embrace the prerogatives of arbitrary authority.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based group, contends lawsuits against phone companies are needed to establish the kind of legal precedents necessary to protect Americans in the future against unwarranted invasions of privacy.
Some of these sources still haven't forgiven Pryor for his vote last year in support of changes in the Patriot Act wanted by the Bush administration. Or his support of some of Bush's most controversial judicial and cabinet appointments, such as former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
At the Web site squiddo.com, you can see some of the same critics discussing “the trouble with Mark Pryor.”
One entry says Pryor “calls himself a Democrat, but he votes with the Bush Republicans in the Senate more than with the Democrats.”
The site has links where viewers can go to buy “Democrats Against Mark Pryor” shirts.
Skreened.com, another website that claims to be a home for progressives, also has anti-Pryor shirts available.
And anti-Pryor material is available at Zimbio.com, a collection of blogs.
Meanwhile, Bob Geiger, a blogger at the Huffington Post, questioned in 2006 how Pryor could be prominent on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee while championing incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman over Democrat Ned Lamont in the Senate race in Connecticut that year. Lieberman, of course, has gone on to support the Republican candidate for president.
Further angering these bloggers is that Pryor has steadfastly refused to have anything to do with judicial filibusters, a tool that many Democrats saw as their only hope for blocking some of the Bush court appointments they most despised, such as Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.
Pryor voted against Alito's confirmation as well, after earlier voting against the effort to filibuster his nomination.
Looking back, Pryor said in an interview, he regrets having supported Gonzales, who Pryor contends lied to him during the storm over the Bush administration's rewarding of political allies with U.S. attorney positions last year. “I had kind of stuck my neck out for him,” Pryor said.
And Pryor said he is disappointed in Chief Justice John Roberts, whom he says has participated in too many 5-4 decisions since arriving on the court in 2005. But Pryor still thinks he has the potential to be “a great chief justice.”
It's not as if conservatives are happy with Pryor either, though. Many evangelicals were taken aback by criticism he directed at them in 2005 for making filibusters of judicial appointments a religious issue.
Pryor said they threatened to “make the followers of Jesus Christ just another special interest group.”
The website conservativebuys.com offers its own anti-Pryor T-shirt.
“Sometimes when you are in the middle you get shot at by both sides,” Pryor said, as he sat on a couch in his Capitol Hill office with his elbows on his knees.
To any Democrats unhappy with him, he says: “I am what I am and I am going to keep my promises made back in 2002.”
That promise, he said, was to be a reasonable senator who would work with both sides and rise above the city's shrill, nonstop partisan warfare. Even so, Pryor played a key role, by opposing the interim appointment of Arkansas native and former White House operative Tim Griffin as U.S. attorney in Little Rock, in forcing what became a national scandal about the Bush administration's politicization of the Justice Department.
Still, only four Democratic senators have opposed their own party more often during the 110th Congress, according to the Washington Post's congressional votes database.
Americans for Democratic Action, the lodestar of the left wing, gives Pryor a rating of 70 percent for 2007, meaning he voted with their positions 70 percent of the time. Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln got a 90. Pryor also scored worse than the three Democrats in the state's House delegation.
Only one Democratic senator, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, got a lower score from the group, but that was because illness forced him to miss a large number of votes last year.
NARAL Pro-Choice America, another key liberal interest group, gives Pryor a 29 percent rating.
On the other hand, the American Conservative Union gave Pryor a 21 percent rating and the National Taxpayers Union, a vehement anti-tax and spending group, has given him an “F” every year he's been in Congress.
Pryor can get away with offending liberals because the Democratic Party in Arkansas does not have a “strong, dynamic” liberal wing, said Hal Bass, political analyst at Ouachita Baptist University.
As a result Pryor didn't give Republicans looking to unseat him “much room on his right.”
Sticking with his bipartisanship, Pryor calls both of this year's presumptive presidential nominees, fellow senators John McCain and Barack Obama, friends. “He [McCain] and I really bonded during the Gang of 14,” he said. It was a reference to the 2005 bipartisan effort by Pryor and 13 others to reach a compromise on judicial filibusters, an issue that threatened to tear the chamber apart.
Pryor said he and Obama and Colorado Democrat Ken Salazar were part of group of senators that met together regularly to bone up on Senate rules.
And Pryor said he recently approached Obama on the Senate floor, asking him what he could do for the presidential campaign. “Pray for me,” Pryor said Obama told him.
Up close and from afar, Pryor's political tacking is seen as quite a talent. It took his father, former Sen. David Pryor, a beloved figure in Arkansas politics, two terms before he could run unopposed.
“I think he has been the epitome of the centrist in an age when the center is disappearing,” said Bass.
Pryor's course, the Ouachita Baptist political analyst said, “is one of constant adjustment as opposed to clear ideological vision.”
The man Pryor beat for his Senate seat in 2002, former Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson, now a Washington lobbyist, said Pryor's running without a Republican opponent reflects both his strengths as a senator and “the weakness of the Republican Party.”
In his post-congressional life, Hutchinson said he has worked with Pryor and his office on a number of issues, including Arkansas State University, and has come to admire him, both for his attentiveness to his constituents and the “political leadership” he showed in matters like the Gang of 14. He said Pryor “reflects Arkansas [voters] pretty well.”
Elizabeth Aymond, spokesman for the Arkansas Republican Party, said this was “a rebuilding year'' as the party focused on building itself at the state and local level rather than take on Pryor, who had banked millions months ago in the event a formidable opponent had emerged.
In 2014, Aymond vowed, Pryor will have a “formidable” opponent.
While no Republicans are running, Pryor did draw opposition from Green Party candidate Rebekah Kennedy, a Quitman attorney.
Kennedy views Pryor as having “conspired” with the Gang of 14 to force a system on the Senate that makes it nearly impossible to uphold traditional Democratic Party values in deciding on judicial appointments. And, she adds, he has taken the side of big business against the consumer in matters such as bankruptcy legislation.
Pryor also shows his disdain for those values by failing to support bills making major changes in the treatment of military detainees. “That's not the type of candidate you allow to walk back into the Senate unopposed,” she said.
However, Pryor said he would support some kind of standardized system for dealing with detainees, whether it's derived from the Constitution, the Geneva Convention or some other international document or treaty.
“I think military detainees should have some rights, some basic human rights wherever they come from,” he said.
This 45-year-old Pryor, who so dearly wants to work with others in the Senate, begins by first bringing together disparate voices within his staff.
Pryor, who arrives at his office on the second floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. on days when the Senate meets, makes it a point to listen closely to Bob Russell, his chief of staff, and other aides, including even press secretary Lisa Ackerman.
When tough decisions approach, he said, he will call his staff together and invite them to sound off, even if they have a view counter to his own.
“I like to have a lot of input, lots of different points of view,” he said. “We try to have an ongoing dialogue.”
Of Russell, he said he's known him since they met at a Bible study at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Little Rock in 1992. (Pryor has since moved to the Mosaic Church.)
When Pryor became Arkansas attorney general, he hired him to be his deputy.
Russell had never run an office that big. “I took a little bit of a chance with him,” the senator said.
Russell, 45, is a graduate of Southern Arkansas University and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock law school.
And Russell had never worked in Washington either, until he arrived with Pryor in January 2003. But Pryor said Russell proved so smart and hard-working that he has handled the job well.
“He has exceptional people skills,” Pryor said.
Pryor even encourages his staff to reach out to the other side. Russell helped form a bipartisan group for chiefs of staff that meets regularly.
That's because a lot of the friction in the Senate, Pryor said, bubbles up from the staff level. Staff members are known for being overly protective of their bosses, he said. “A lot of times senators themselves get along fine.”
It is not unknown for Pryor to talk with his wife, Jill, about Senate matters also.
He especially consulted with her, he said, when he decided join the Gang of 14.
“I knew when I did that I was going to make my leader mad,” he said, referring to then Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
At times when he calls home, he said, he catches Jill watching C-SPAN2, which covers the Senate.
“C-SPAN2!” he tells her. “Get a life.”
But while Jill is definitely part of his inner circle, she has been little seen during this first term. One of the few occasions was when he was sworn into office in January 2003. “Jill is not a very public person. She does not ever want to give a speech,” he said. “She doesn't have a lot of patience for the silliness in politics.”
But, “She is great at keeping me grounded.”
Pryor and his wife decided in 2007 to end their experiment of trying to raise their two kids inside the Beltway.
They moved back to Little Rock and Pryor became what he calls a “commuter” senator, leaving for Washington on Mondays and returning on Fridays.
Of his life with the family in Arlington, Va., he said, “It was never great but it was good.” The Washington area was just a little too stressful, he said.
When in the District of Columbia, Pryor now stays with his brother David Pryor Jr. and his family in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood.
Pryor has gotten lots of national attention this year for his work on revamping the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Some of his earlier causes have included improving tax benefits for military veterans and installing a better tracking system to help loved ones keep up with the status of the wounded in Iraq.
While he is thrilled to have no Republican opposition this year, Pryor said he always enjoyed campaigning as a chance “to get feedback.”
After nearly six years in Washington is Pryor out of the shadow of his father?
“I'm very proud of my father. If I'm in his shadow the rest of my life that's fine with me,'' he said, but added something new is going on as well.
“I think people are comfortable with me now, me Mark Pryor, not just Mark Pryor, David Pryor's son.”