News » Cover Stories

Mark Pryor's long shadow

The new senator provides a political profile for Democrats to come

by

comment
Sen. David Pryor and Sen. Mark Pryor
  • Sen. David Pryor and Sen. Mark Pryor

The words always tumble out softly, the corners of every sentence gently rounded off, as if Mark Pryor were trying not to disturb the peaceful sleep of a child perhaps over there behind the desk or as if there is something somehow confidential about the ordinary thoughts he is sharing with you. Like almost everything else about him, the speech of the junior United States senator from Arkansas wants to dispel the notion that he is, at least fleetingly, a national hero for the Democratic Party and a figure who is likely to cast a very long shadow over the politics of his state.

Meek, soft-spoken, reticent, shy, deliberate, cautious, absence of ego and bluster - these are not terms that ordinarily fit a politician, especially one who has won four decisive elections in 12 years and at the age of 39 reached a forum reserved for the most charismatic politicians in the country.

But Mark Lunsford Pryor bucked a national Republican tide in 2002, defeating a fairly accomplished but admittedly damaged senator, Tim Hutchinson, by the healthy margin of 8 percent. He did it despite the largest surge of money into a single campaign since the fourth and losing Winthrop Rockefeller campaign for governor in 1970 and a literal invasion by Republican big shots pleading for his defeat, from the popular president and vice president to cabinet members, senators and other conservative luminaries from Rudy Giuliani to Charlton Heston. Pryor said no thanks to all the sachems of his own party who wanted to come lend a hand, including the former president from Arkansas, that he would handle the job all by himself. He spurned all of them, that is, except his old dad, who proved to be quite enough. There is some evidence, too, that Pryor proved to be an asset to other Arkansas Democrats, including the gritty Jimmie Lou Fisher, who lost a closer race for governor. 2002.

It was the first year since the early 1970s that the Arkansas Republican Party, still the most moribund in America, suffered a net setback in its glacial drive for parity, and Democrats have to accord Mark Pryor quite a bit of the credit.

It was all enough to make Pryor the Arkansas Times' Arkansan of the Year.

Although he dominated the political news of the state in 2002 and you have a strong hunch that he will be a United States senator for as long as he wants to be and as long as his health permits, Mark Pryor still has not quite dispelled all the doubts that have followed him since his naïve beginnings in the state House of Representatives, doubts about his political ability, his gravity. But a remarkable, almost perfectly run campaign for the Senate has gone a long way, although some still prefer to credit someone else: national strategists, a trio of young pals who helped steer the campaign, or maybe the elder Pryor, who worked so hard behind the scenes.

The conventional wisdom last year was that Hutchinson, the pious family candidate, had beaten himself by his office tryst with an aide, divorce and remarriage and that people were apt to vote for Pryor only because they loved his father or maybe even thought it was his father who was running yet again. David H. Pryor gave up the Senate seat after 18 years in 1996, paving the way for Congressman Hutchinson to go to the Senate for a term.

Both theories sell Sen. Pryor short. The Pryor name and his father's standing got him an early commitment from the national party and deterred opposition in the primaries, and David Pryor helped raise a creditable amount of money, but in the end it was Mark Pryor who bested Hutchinson, starting with the first and critical debate, when he handled himself not heroically but creditably.

One of the early doubts about young Pryor was that although his and his father's careers paralleled eerily - election to the state House in their mid-20s, a dramatic but failed challenge to an older and legendary vote-getter, a comeback in the next election for a state office and finally election to the U. S. Senate - Mark lacked the passion that marked his father's youth or David's innate political ability and charm.

David Pryor is as natural a politician as ever lived. He was elected president of his class at Camden in the first grade and every year thereafter. As he would tell it, as soon as he got elected president of the first grade he was calculating how he could get elected president of the second. Jim Westbrook, later dean of a couple of Midwestern law schools, was a close friend who coveted the class offices himself but it was hopeless to challenge David. When David was elected president of the student body his senior year Westbrook finally had his chance and was elected president of the senior class.

As a young state legislator, David Pryor championed constitutional reform, bearded the state's powerful governor, Orval Faubus, and challenged county courthouses. He pushed for a law requiring counties to take competitive bids on everything that cost $1,000 or more and eventually succeeded although Faubus arranged for another legislator to introduce the same bill and get his name on the act. But he particularly loved politicking.

Mark Pryor made a lot less commotion in his two terms in the Arkansas House, but the times were different. Unlike his father, Mark never seemed to relish retail politics. He would hang back at receptions and rallies, taking the microphone reluctantly and briefly, and then saying little about himself and even less about his opponent. Did he have the driving ambition to be elected, or was he merely fitting into the family template?

Mark's own account of his career lends some credence to the latter theory. He said in a recent interview that in junior high school and high school he sort of expected to go into politics like his father, whom he adored. When his father was a congressman from South Arkansas (1966-73), he followed him some to Capitol Hill and once to the White House. His father had told him that President Eisenhower would tramp around the White House with his golf spikes and he remembers trying to find the chinks in the floor.

Pryor spent six years going to school in Little Rock after David's defeat in the Senate race of 1972 and during his four years as governor, attending Stephens Intermediate School, Forest Heights Junior High and, for one semester, Central High School. Then with his father's election to the Senate in 1978 they moved to Washington. He graduated from Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md. He went to the University of Arkansas, receiving a B.A. in history and a law degree.

"I liked politics and thought I might make a career of it," Pryor said. "But in college and law school, that changed. I was extremely proud of my dad, but that was his thing, not mine. I decided I was going to law school and be a lawyer, have my own career and do things my own way."

He clerked for lawyer Bill Wilson, an old friend of his father who later became a federal judge, and then joined the Wright Lindsey Jennings law firm.

In 1990 he and his father made a pact that he would take leave from the firm and work in his father's re-election campaign. But the deadline for filing approached and it became clear that no one would run against his father. "In my mind, I had got focused on a race. It just so happened that about that time my representative, Gloria Cabe, decided not to run again. It really was almost at the last minute that I decided to file for that seat." He won a four-person Democratic primary.

Four years later, he surprised everyone by running against Attorney General Winston Bryant, a longtime state officeholder who seemed and proved then to be invincible. Pryor says that he observed in the legislature how important the attorney general's office was to the functioning of government.

"I never thought Winston was a bad person or a bad attorney general," he said. In fact, he thought Bryant was a pretty good attorney general, but he thought he could be a good one, too, and maybe even a better one. So he ran. About his only issue was crime. He said Bryant should be going to pardon and parole board hearings to oppose paroles for tough criminals. He ran hard and a Democrat-Gazette poll a few days before the election showed that it was neck and neck. But Bryant won in a runaway, 58 to 42.

Pryor went back to his law practice, not sure if he would ever run for anything again. He left the Wright firm, where his practice had been almost solely insurance defense work, and started a solo practice. He liked it because it reconnected him to ordinary people and their problems.

When his father retired in 1998, Bryant and Hutchinson ran for the Senate seat and Mark ran again for attorney general. This time, he had no Democratic opponent and he easily defeated the Republican, Betty Dickey, ex-wife of then-Congressman Jay Dickey.

In the interim he had a life-changing experience. In June 1996 during an operation to repair a torn achilles tendon in his left ankle, doctors found and removed a malignant tumor. It was diagnosed as a rare and particularly lethal form of cancer called clear-cell sarcoma. He underwent weeks of radiation therapy and eventually, to prevent spread of the cancer, a 12-hour operation transplanted an achilles tendon in the ankle from a donor in New Jersey. A checkup last fall showed that he was still clear of cancer. Five years is considered a critical point in the disease's remission.

Therapy restored the full use of his leg, and though he still must sometimes wear a sandal on the foot he walks without a limp. But it still limits his physical activity. Running and pickup basketball, an obsession far into adulthood, had kept him trim but he could no longer run or engage in any strenuous activity involving his legs except swimming. He gained weight and his fitness therapy turned to upper-body weight work.

His father was a high-school football star, a run-pass tailback in the last double-wing formation in America, but Mark had had to settle for pickup sports.

"Mark was a tremendous athlete," said Randy Massanelli, a fraternity brother at the University of Arkansas, campaign manager and now Pryor's state office director. "He could play anything but he was a particularly standout basketball player. He played all the time, at the YMCA or wherever. It's been hard having to give that up."

The weight gain and the upper-body fitness work had the salutary effect of giving him the appearance of an NFL linebacker. His beefy good looks were a big political asset.

In joint appearances with the slightly built Hutchinson, Pryor looked imposing. Aides negotiating the terms of debates insisted on the candidates standing, the better to accentuate the difference in stature. The camera angle in the first debate made Hutchinson look particularly puny beside the muscular Pryor.

The physical and emotional trial of the cancer seemed to have other effects. Friends said it imbued Pryor with a confidence, a stubbornness and serenity they had not seen. Massanelli said that in the fury of the campaign Pryor was the one who never got excited or worried.

"The house might be falling down around us but he was just the same," Massanelli said. Everyone was agitated about the debate, worrying about what might go wrong and that Pryor was not doing enough to prepare for it. "Randy, don't worry," Pryor said gently, touching his arm. "I'm going to do fine."

When Democrats began looking for a heavyweight to run against Hutchinson in 2002, they settled on Mark Pryor pretty quickly. He was the only proven statewide vote-getter with an appealing name. There were strong doubts about tough and resilient he would be in what was sure to be a nasty and expensive race. He had chaired Al Gore's presidential campaign in Arkansas in 2000, people remembered, barely. Pryor had kept a low profile and Gore had lost, badly, a state where he should have at least been competitive.

While his deft campaign for the Senate, in which he kept Hutchinson crowded to the far right, resolved much of the doubt about Pryor's ability, it didn't leave old-line Democrats any more comfortable about what kind of senator he would be, a moderate-to-liberal Democrat like his father or a more conservative Southerner, like Arkansas's senior senator, Blanche Lincoln, or Louisiana's John Breaux, who are sometimes found collaborating with the White House.

The campaign, which was calculated to mark everything left of primogeniture as Pryor's turf, did nothing to reassure more liberal Democrats. Pryor supported President Bush wholeheartedly on war with Iraq and his early tax initiatives, though not the later effort to speed up Bush's tax cuts for wealthy people and make them permanent. He let it be known he would be a reliable vote against any kind of legislation to control guns. But he hit Hutchinson hard on his opposition to minimum-wage increases and his support for privatizing Social Security. He also renounced the possibility that he would ever vote to amend the Constitution to advance any of the conservative social causes, flag desecration, school prayer and abortion, although he isn't likely to please abortion rights advocates.

His eight years in public office do not give strong clues either about a political doctrine. In the state House of Representatives, he was the author or co-sponsor of quite a bit of legislation but it was mostly bar legislation. He voted for most of Gov. Bill Clinton's tax legislation for schools, elderly services and highways in 1991.

As attorney general, while he was not as aggressive as Bryant, who sued poultry industry polluters, he was a tough advocate for consumers and utility ratepayers and he went after drug companies for manipulating the prescription market. Like most attorney generals he pursued a judgment and then a lucrative settlement from the tobacco companies.

But consumer advocacy has become a staple of attorney generals, Republican or Democratic. A riskier gambit was his advocacy of a state hate-crimes law, which he pursued vigorously in the legislature in 2001. Some thought it was his finest hour.

He defended the state's sodomy law all the way to the state Supreme Court, which last year struck it down unanimously. He said he defended that law like others because it was his office's duty, not because he believed it was a good law. Appealing the law to the Supreme Court made the precedent statewide.

"I don't mind admitting that I'm a little hard to classify," Pryor said in a December interview. "I'm just not very ideological. Partly that's my background and the generation I'm a part of. During my early childhood, there were people who thought government could solve all our problems, and in the Reagan era people thought the absence of government could solve all our problems. I decided that I'm just not ideological. I don't care where the idea comes from or who's beating the drum for it. If it makes sense, if solves the problem and it's logical, sensible and affordable I'm willing to try it."

He expects that he'll find a niche in the Senate about like his father's.

He said that was working with moderate Democrats and across the aisle with moderate Republicans to find common-sense solutions to problems. He thought that was his father's contribution to the Senate and the state - his ability to work with everybody and not get stuck in an ideological rut. Last week, his first full one in the Senate, found Sen. Pryor, sure enough, collaborating with a group of Republicans and moderate Democrats to craft an alternative to President Bush's economic stimulus package, which gave huge tax cuts to the wealthy.

But his father did not regularly collaborate with the Republican White Houses or Senate Republicans. In 1983, he voted against the Reagan White House more often than every one of the other 99 senators, notably including Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. Thinking that the record would not sit well with conservative Arkansas voters, the Republicans targeted Pryor the next year. They persuaded U. S. Rep. Ed Bethune to oppose him, pumped millions into the campaign and sent an army of bigwigs, from Reagan down, to the state to beat him. Pryor won handily.

It is hard to imagine the younger Pryor ever building a record that gave the appearance of such partisanship.

What is most unusual about Pryor is that he finds any kind of personal criticism of other politicians distasteful, unmannerly or just rude. He seems out of sync with contemporary political culture. His campaign commercials could get almost as nasty as Hutchinson's but not Pryor himself. And while campaign aides could ridicule the other camp, Pryor rarely even hinted at it.

His reluctance to mix it up sometimes frustrated aides. Governor Huckabee would chastise Pryor and accuse him of politics but Pryor wouldn't respond. Pryor would wave it off when aides suggested a strong response. "People elected him, too," he would say.

When every member of Congress of both parties were pummeling Sen. Trent Lott, the Republican majority leader, for yearning for the good old days of segregation, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette recorded Pryor as having no comment. Pryor's strongest supporters were aghast that he would wimp out on such a free pass.

An aide said Pryor actually hadn't said "no comment," merely that he agreed with Lott that his remarks at Sen. Strom Thurmond's birthday party had been inappropriate and wrong. But given Pryor's passionate commitment to civil rights, even that response was limp. Two days later, he put out a little stronger statement but one that still was more charitable than the comments of even many Republicans. "[Sen. Lott] has had a track record, a pattern of saying or doing things regarding race that concern me," Pryor said.

This charitable impulse does not seem to be a political contrivance but a part of his nature. So far it has stood him in good stead. On primary election night in 1994, with fewer than half the votes reported, Pryor went to the lectern at his campaign headquarters and conceded the election to Bryant. Candidates ordinarily hold out for a clearer trend, or the rural boxes or something, but Pryor congratulated Bryant on winning and added some unusual flattery for a political opponent. Bryant, he told his supporters, "ran his campaign like he ran his attorney general's office - with tenacity, with conviction, with compassion." It reminded some of a similarly gracious concession his father made in 1972, when he lost a bitter race with Sen. John L. McClellan.

It won Pryor about the only friendly comment he ever got at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. An editorial said Pryor's good form should be a model for politicians. "Happily for him and for Arkansas," the paper said, "there's always a next time." There was, but the Democrat-Gazette would give him no quarter.

It could be that the explanation for any example of the senator's charitable nature is that it is just the Christian thing to do. He is, after all, guided by a deep religious impulse that influences his political activity if it does not dictate his views about issues.

Political events on the day of worship are off limits. He would not debate Hutchinson on network television because it would be on Sunday. His campaign had to schedule activities so that he would be at home on weekends. He did not even attend the Democratic State Convention to accept the party's nomination because it was on Saturday. A friend who borrowed his car says the radio is programmed to religious stations.

Pryor, his wife, Jill, and their two children were members of the Fellowship Bible Church, the giant evangelical church in west Little Rock that is a spiritual home for the conservative social movement. That he worshiped at Fellowship and, last year, moved his children from a public school to a Christian academy bothered liberal Democrats. The speculation was that his wife exerted a powerful influence on him and that the church shaped his views on such issues as abortion. Pryor seemed to be ambivalent on abortion when he ran for attorney general in 1994 remarking at one point that he hoped Roe v. Wade might be undone gradually. He was unequivocally pro-choice in 1998 but in 2002, in an interview with the Fellowship pastor published on the church web site, he seemed to renounce his 1998 stand. Pryor acknowledges now that the issue is troubling for him.

But he said the decision to move to Fellowship - he was reared a Presbyterian and Jill a Methodist - was a joint one and that it had nothing to do with the politics or the doctrinal orthodoxy of the church or unhappiness with the Presbyterian church.

"When we were married we went to the Presbyterian church, and Jill liked that," Pryor said. "When we had children, we started to look around. We wanted a different kind of program for children and Fellowship has programs for children. That's what got us considering it."

"A lot of people go to Fellowship because it is a conservative evangelical church," he said. "But we've gone there for spiritual reasons, not political reasons. There's a tendency by some people to take the persona of the church and try to imprint it on somebody for no reason."

The church doesn't dictate his political convictions, he said. "I think I'm still a Presbyterian at heart. We've bought a house in Arlington [Va.] in my old neighborhood. One of our challenges is to find a good church. I told Jill I wanted to check out Presbyterian churches." He expected to enroll the boys in a public school in Arlington.

Add a comment

Clicky