(Note: Complete coverage of Bill Gwatney's death at ArkansasBusiness.com/Bill-Gwatney.)
William A. "Bill" Gwatney, Arkansas Democratic Party chairman, former state senator and CEO of Gwatney Chevrolet in Jacksonville, died Wednesday after a gunman shot him at state Democratic Party headquarters in downtown Little Rock.
Gwatney was 48.
"Arkansas has lost a great son, and I have lost a great friend," Gov. Mike Beebe said in a statement. "There is deep pain in Arkansas tonight because of the sheer number of people who knew, respected and loved Bill Gwatney. Along with thousands of other Arkansans, Ginger and I are trying to come to terms with such a shocking and senseless attack. We ask all Arkansans to keep the Gwatney family in your thoughts and prayers."
A Bright Star
Gwatney was a bright star in business and politics in Arkansas and was among Arkansas Business' first "40 Under 40" honorees.
He had a background in banking, having been an executive vice president with First National Bank in Jacksonville, formerly owned by his family. He was part of the Gwatney family auto dealership dynasty. And he was to be a delegate to the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. He was going to cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton for the party's presidential nomination.
He distinguished himself in the state Legislature, entering the Senate in 1993 at age 33. He took on the health insurance industry in 1995, with his sponsorship of "any willing provider" legislation, or the Patient Protection Act, which went on to become law.
Term limits ended his career in the Legislature in 2003. During his last legislative session, he led efforts to reform state ethics rules, handle legislative redistricting and promote economic development.
He was considered to have a promising future in Arkansas politics, with talk during his legislative career of potential races for the governor's seat or for the 2nd District congressional seat.
Gwatney was Beebe's finance chairman during Beebe's run for governor in 2006.
Tributes to Gwatney came pouring in after the news of his slaying. Former President Bill Clinton and his wife, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, issued a joint statement: "We are deeply saddened by the news that Bill Gwatney has passed away. His leadership and commitment to Arkansas and this country have always inspired us and those who had the opportunity to know him. Our prayers are with his family during this time."
Dennis Milligan, chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas, said: "It is with great sadness that we have learned of the tragic death of Democrat Party Chairman Bill Gwatney. He was an admirable Arkansan and gave so much to this state and his party.
"We ask that all Arkansans stand together in thought and prayer for the Gwatney family and the staff of the DPA."
Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola called Gwatney's death a tragedy "not only for the city of Little Rock but for the entire state of Arkansas."
Patient Protection Act
The legislation for which Gwatney is probably best known, the Patient Protection Act, required insurance companies to pay the same benefits to any provider willing to accept the same terms as the incumbent in-network providers.
"What's the fairness of a health plan if you can't go where you want to go?" Gwatney told Arkansas Business in 1995.
Insurance companies fought the measure fiercely. Insurance costs would go up, they argued, because there was no reason for providers to discount their prices if the insurance companies couldn't then steer patients their way.
Taking on the major hospitals and insurance companies made Gwatney nervous, he said. "But I knew that the public would support this, and I knew that the bill wouldn't hurt the large hospitals and insurance companies like they thought."
Gwatney - and his bill - prevailed, and the measure became law.
In the Legislature, Gwatney was given the nickname "Gwatzilla," which came first from the giant, inflatable Godzilla that that sometimes graced the top of Harold Gwatney Chevrolet, the family business in Jacksonville. The figure became known in TV ads as Gwatzilla.
But Gwatzilla had another meaning for Gwatney's legislative colleagues: It referred to Gwatney's sponsorship of the controversial any willing provider legislation, and the moniker was one of respect. He was given a great deal of the credit for the bill's passage, leading to predictions of greater things - and possibly higher offices - to come.
"I think he surprised more people than anyone else in the legislature in this session," then-state Sen. Mike Beebe of Searcy said in a 1995 Arkansas Business profile of Gwatney. "I always thought he had the talent and ability, but I was a little surprised that he was able to bring it all together in just his second term."
Gwatney also fought for ethics legislation while serving in the Legislature and was a frequent critic of then-Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Gwatney's father, Harold Gwatney, had been involved in the business since 1957, having had dealerships in Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas. Bill Gwatney had majority ownership of the Jacksonville dealership.
Gwatney grew up around the family business, washing cars in the lot as a 14-year-old.
Gwatney's Little Rock Auto Group Inc. entered the capital city in 2004 when it bought Chenal Parkway Buick Pontiac GMC and University Truck Center in Little Rock from Bob Fewell.
Gwatney has two daughters.