On his way from his fourth-floor office to the Senate chambers on the third floor, William A. "Bill" Gwatney hears someone shout, "Hey, Gwatzilla!"
"I've been tagged for life," chuckles the second-term state senator from Jacksonville as he smiles and waves with a red tinge covering his face.
The moniker comes first from the giant, inflatable Godzilla that that sometimes graces the top of Harold Gwatney Chevrolet, the family business in Jacksonville that is the state's largest automobile dealership. The critter became known in TV ads as Gwatzilla.
Gwatney became known to colleagues as Gwatzilla for sponsoring and successfully shepherding controversial any-willing-provider legislation through the Arkansas General Assembly. He was given a great deal of the credit, 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," says state Sen. Mike Beebe of Searcy, one of the Senate's kingpins. "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."
Pre-session speculation was that the Patient Protection Act would cause a bloodbath in the General Assembly, pitting insurance companies and large hospitals — particularly Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield and Baptist Medical System — against doctors and small hospitals. Once the fight against the measure was lost at committee level, the bill was approved 32-1 in the Senate and 88-1 in the House.
The name Gwatney's earned — well, besides Gwatzilla — is one of respect.
"I think he has certainly made a name for himself in this legislative session," says Skip Rutherford, a politico who's officially senior vice president and director of public policy at the Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods advertising agency. "He stayed cool and calm under some great pressure. He withstood enormous odds, fought an uphill battle and kept his sense of humor and fair play. When you start ranking how various people performed during the session, Gwatzilla is going to be near the top."
Is there anyone who disagrees?
"There are two sides to an issue," Beebe says, "but I don't know if there are two sides on Gwatney or how he handled himself."
Like a Pro
Beebe says Gwatney handled himself like a longtime pro.
"And that was a difficult, controversial bill," Beebe says. "He met every obstacle with grace and dignity, without losing his cool. He didn't try to cram anything down people's throats. To use a sports term, he let the game come to him rather than try to force the issue. He was cognizant and knowledgeable of the legitimate arguments on the other side. I can't recall any mistakes he made."
Did Gwatney's handling of the bill contribute to its passage?
"You bet it did," Beebe says.
Gwatney says he was surprised, and obviously pleased, with the ease in which the bill went through the General Assembly.
"All the worry, the work and the sleepless nights had paid off, he says. "To tell the truth, I had expected it to be closer."
State Sen. Nick Wilson of Pocahontas, the lone "nay" on the any-willing-provider bill in the Senate (state Rep. Roger Rorie of Fox cast the only "no" vote in the House), says Gwatney "did a fine job on the any-willing-provider bill.
"He must have — it passed overwhelmingly," says Wilson, whose absence during a critical committee vote was one of the pivotal moments in the legislative fight. "I don't think he ruffled any feathers, even of the people on the other side."
That may not be the case, exactly. Bob Cabe, executive vice president of Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, opposed the any-willing provider bill and refused to comment on Gwatney.
Asked about his relationship with Gwatney, Cabe said, "I don't think we had a relationship."
Gwatney says he "only dealt with Mr. Cabe a couple of times. He had his views and me, I had mine. We knew we'd never convince the other to change. But I respect him because he was doing what he felt was right. I hope he feels the same way about me. If I made any enemies, I don't think it was because I was rude or obnoxious. It was just because I felt strongly about my bill. And, hey, if the bill was so bad, I think that more than two people in the entire General Assembly would have voted against it. I mean, it wasn't close."
Gwatney pauses, appears reflective, smiles, then laughs and repeats, "It wasn't even close."
Politicos says Gwatney made many more friends than enemies over the any-willing-provider issue. And thanks to his success in this session, Gwatney's name is coming up more frequently during conversations at politicos' watering holes, Rutherford says.
Not 'If' but 'When'
"There's a lot of speculation about Gwatney's future," Rutherford says, "and his future is very, very bright. The question (of Gwatney's ability to seek higher office) isn't 'if,' it's 'when.' He has got to be considered to play a major role in Arkansas' political future."
Beebe, who has political ambitions of his own, wouldn't speculate about Gwatney's political future.
"He certainly has the talent, the ability and the demeanor to hold any office he might run for, but I'd hate to lose him in the Senate. He's an excellent state senator."
Gwatney's name is mentioned most often as a potential candidate for the 2nd Congressional District seat, and he is flattered by the accolades.
"I'm pleased that people would think that I'm competent enough in the job that I do now to consider me for another," Gwatney says.
Gwatney's days in the Senate are definitely numbered by the state's term limit law, and he knows he'll have just one more shot at re-election in 1998.
"The General Assembly is a proving ground for the leaders of tomorrow. It hasn't been that way in the past. You didn't see governors or congressmen coming out of the state Legislature in the past. But that will change, mostly because of term limits."
But Gwatney won't commit, either, because he doesn't want to talk about his plans or because he really doesn't know.
"Maybe I can run for higher office," Gwatney says. "But it's a big commitment. I may be away from my business a lot now, but when I ran for the state Senate I didn't go to work for four months — from the day I announced to the day I won."
His business and ability to fit into Congress are Gwatney's major concerns about considering higher office.
Harold Gwatney Chevrolet — which includes not only the Jacksonville dealership but five others in the Memphis, Tenn., area — will celebrate its 38th anniversary this year. The family business is expected record $250 million-$300 million in sales this year, with $50 million of that from the Jacksonville dealership.
"My business is very important to me," Gwatney says. "I've been very fortunate to have a number of long-term employees to pick up the slack in my absence. Even during the sessions I'm able to go into work two or three days a week, at least for an hour or two because I live in central Arkansas."
And Gwatney likes being a citizen-senator, a businessman who quits hawking cars whenever he's called to Little Rock for a session of the General Assembly. He doesn't like being known just as a car salesman because he's quick to point out his banking career and financial background.
"You're so insulated from things in Washington," Gwatney says. "You don't get the instant feedback like you do in state government. That's one of the great things about a citizen government and state government. Washington is so caught up in partisan politics. You're expected to toe to the party line in D.C. That's not the case in the state Legislature. You vote for what you think is right. I'm not so sure Washington is the place for a thoughtful person to go."
"I'm not saying I'll never run for Congress. But I'd have to feel good about it and my family would have to feel good about it. The 2nd Congressional District seat would be attractive, but I don't know if I'd want to consider it next year. I know I've got a lot of supporters who would be there for me. They're the type of folks who, well, I could call them and they'd say, 'Whatever you want to do, Bill.'"
That seems to be the general consensus on Gwatney's political future: "Whatever you want to do, Gwatzilla."