Gov. Mike Beebe and some of his staff members were in the sky near Russellville and headed for Springdale when the telephone rang at midday on Aug. 13, 2008.
“That was the only time the air phone rang in the airplane in eight years,” he said last week.
That’s how Beebe, who had been governor for a year and a half, learned that Bill Gwatney had been gravely wounded by a gunman who entered the Arkansas Democratic Party headquarters in Little Rock. The airplane returned to Little Rock.
Matt DeCample, who was Beebe’s spokesman, was on the plane. When the plane descended enough to pick up cell tower signals, every cellphone on the plane started buzzing from pent-up text messages and voicemails.
Beebe’s State Police detail took him straight to the Governor’s Mansion. “They wouldn’t let me immediately go anywhere because the guy was on the loose,” he said.
Democratic Party staffers were brought to the governor’s office at the Capitol two blocks away, DeCample said. Counselors were brought in from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences — one of the many kindnesses that stand out in the mind of Mariah Hatta, the party executive director who was in the office with Gwatney when he was shot.
The gunman, promptly identified as Timothy Dale Johnson from Beebe’s hometown of Searcy, was fatally wounded in a shootout with law enforcement near Sheridan at about 12:30 p.m., so Beebe was able to join Gwatney’s family and friends at UAMS Medical Center in Little Rock before Gwatney was pronounced dead at 3:59 p.m.
“In a way it seems like yesterday,” Beebe said, “and in a way it seems like forever ago.”
He still feels some responsibility for Gwatney’s death. “I think about that a lot, and I have a lot of guilt about that, because if I hadn’t asked him to be chairman, he wouldn’t be there,” Beebe said.
But he then dismissed that line of thinking, saying other factors combined to put Gwatney in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“There was no rational basis for an irrational act,” he concluded.
Beebe said Gwatney had not discussed with him any future political ambitions, although Gwatney did complain about being term-limited from the state Senate while still in his early 40s. “He certainly had the talent to run for statewide office. He had politics in his blood, so it would not have been out of the realm of reason if he had run for statewide office.”
Will Bond, another Jacksonville Democrat who later served as the state party chairman, started his political career on Gwatney’s first run for the state Senate. He said Gwatney “would have had a legitimate shot at being lieutenant governor or even governor. He had the skills and was personally positioned to be able to do that.”
Hatta said she has given a lot of thought to what Arkansas lost that day. “Obviously, so many lives would have been different. And I think politics would have been different in Arkansas,” she said.
Gwatney’s widow, Rebecca, filled in for him as a superdelegate at the Democratic National Convention in Denver two weeks later, and the nomination and election of Barack Obama as president would accelerate the Democratic Party’s fall from power in Arkansas.
“It was a very different environment than we have today,” Hatta said, “and I wouldn’t have been surprised if Bill Gwatney had run for another office at some point.”
Hatta, who has worked as an independent political consultant since 2011, had been named executive director of the state party earlier in 2008.
“The few months I worked for him and traveled around, he was very well received. People liked him, really liked him. And after his death, you could see how many people really liked him from all parts of his life.”
Despite having been born into privilege, Gwatney had the ability to connect with all types of people, she said. “He didn’t talk up and he didn’t talk down — he was just himself. And I think that would have resonated.”