The best tribute to Marion Berry, the former 1st District congressman who died May 19, came from Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Rex Nelson: “He was pure Arkansas.”
A farmer and a pharmacist, Berry, a Democrat, understood the travails of farmers and the sick and carried that understanding into his service to his constituents, advocating for agriculture and health care.
But what does being “pure Arkansas” mean in the context of this Stuttgart native who grew up in Bayou Meto? It means that Berry was loyal, plainspoken, humorous and, as state Democratic Party Chair Grant Tennille observed, dedicated to “delivering results for his constituents.”
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His constituents noticed and repaid his loyalty and his devotion to delivering results. After his first race in 1996, Berry, who represented the 1st District from January 1997 until January 2011, never received less than 60% of the vote in the four races in which he drew an opponent.
Berry also was a Blue Dog Democrat, fiscally conservative and an advocate for balanced budgets, and he opposed abortion. But he understood the importance of Medicare and Social Security to the well-being of Arkansans and sought to protect these programs.
Berry was a congressman who knew how to compromise, which, after all, is the very heart of democracy and representative government. We live in the hope that compromise is not a lost art.
He was also a great promoter of the annual Gillett Coon Supper, a political event at which people seek to bond over raccoon cuisine. Our Greatest Generation parents spoke of eating racoon during the Depression, but we can’t say they looked back on that time fondly. Nevertheless, according to his cousin Ben Noble, Berry maintained his devotion to the dish. As former President Bill Clinton said of Berry, “He never forgot where he came from.”
And perhaps that is the finest definition of “pure Arkansas” we can imagine.