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State Capitol: Where Politics Collide

6 min read

Deceit, incompetence, back-room dealings. More than 100 years have passed since the cornerstone was laid for Arkansas’ State Capitol building. But gazing at the magnificent dome that tops the state’s most recognizable landmark, many people would never suspect the more-than 16-year struggle it took to complete the granite structure.

So, too, has struggle and change marked the landscape of Arkansas politics since settlers carved out a piece of the Louisiana Purchase and brought it to statehood in 1836.

Dominated by the Democratic Party for decades, Arkansas was much slower than its neighboring states to join the conservative fervor sweeping the South and elect Republicans to statewide and national office. Even when voters came around in 1996 to electing Tim Hutchinson, the state’s first Republican U.S. senator since Reconstruction, they did an about-face in 2002 and voted in favor of Democrat Mark Pryor.

The political machinations of a century ago that dominated the planning and construction of the state Capitol provide a fitting analogy for the state’s political development through the years and its condition even today, said Arkansas historian Tom Dillard.

“I think that speaks to many of the problems we have in this state — political dissension, the failure to work together,” said Dillard, curator of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, part of the Central Arkansas Library System.

The Sky Is Falling

It took the collapse of the state Senate chamber ceiling in January 1899 to prod the Legislature into approving construction of a new Capitol. The State House, built in 1836, was too small and was deteriorating despite two expensive renovations.

But construction of a new 286,000-SF building on the site of the state penitentiary would experience many starts and stops brought on by faulty plans, stolen blueprints, cost overruns, bribery charges and plain ol’ politics before it was finished in 1916.

An appropriation bill authorizing the new structure was signed into law April 17, 1899. The building was to cost no more than $1 million.

John Treon, in an article published in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly in 1972, wrote, “The price was unrealistic, management was decentralized, expertise missing and the door thrown open to error.”

The first blunder occurred when builder George Donaghey mistakenly laid the foundation on a true east-west line instead of aligning it to face directly onto Fifth St., which was laid parallel to the Arkansas River. Next, the commission overseeing the work authorized the foundation to be poured before architect George R. Mann completed his plans. It had to be redone.

The cornerstone was laid on Thanksgiving Day 1900, but nothing more was done for three and a half years thanks to newly elected populist Gov. Jeff Davis. Davis saw the construction as urban folly, Dillard said. Treon wrote that Davis used “every available device to derail the Capitol.” Davis labeled it a bad investment, accused the commission of padding the architect’s contract and suggested that Mann’s blueprints were defective, according to Treon.

Davis appointed his own commission and removed the blueprints from the treasurer’s office. The blueprints then disappeared. In 1905, there were squabbles over materials, and the contractor was accused of over-billing. Eventually, six legislators and two lobbyists were arrested on bribery charges and 35 other lawmakers subpoenaed. State Sen. Festus O. Butt went to prison.

Meanwhile, the cost kept rising, topping $2.5 million by the time the Capitol was completed.

Democrats Dominate

The state’s political history proves no less colorful. As part of both the Deep South and the Western frontier, Arkansas developed a unique political character combining individualism and independence heavily influenced by its largely working-class population.

For most of Arkansas’ history, the state has been aligned with the Democratic Party — beginning in the 1830s when Arkansas was settled under part of the national expansion that took place under Democrats such as President Andrew Jackson.

“The Democratic Party has appealed to and protected the interest of the working class of people, and Arkansas has always been working-class to a fault,” Dillard said.

After the Civil War, politics came to be viewed as “Us vs. Them,” further solidifying the Democratic Party, Dillard said. In the 1930s, the Depression continued the modern Democratic hold on Arkansas. Arkansans were starving to death. The Democratic Party gave them the New Deal and put them to work in the CCC camps and WPA projects, with Republicans voting against it constantly, he said.

“People viewed the Democratic Party as looking after the collective self-interest, even though it didn’t always,” Dillard said. “The moneyed powers were Democrats because it was the only ball game in town. The moneyed people in other states were Republicans. Here, the AFL-CIO head was in the same party as the head of the power company.”

But, he said, many people have forgotten that there have always been other active political parties, including the Socialist Party in the 1880s and 1890s, which ran lots of candidates. Even the Communist party ran gubernatorial candidates.

“The state was never one party. There was a Whig Party here. It never won the governorship, but it did win Congress,” he said. “There has been a Republican presence in Arkansas since April 1867 when the party was established here. There were long periods of time when it would be down to one or two, but there was still a party and they still ran candidates.”

Though Arkansans elected a Republican governor or two over the years — Winthrop Rockefeller from 1967-1970 and Frank White from 1981-1983 — those instances were viewed as anomalies brought about by unique circumstances, and Democrats quickly regained power each time.

Republicans Rally

That is, until 1996, when Republican Mike Huckabee became governor. Huckabee, who is in his eighth year as governor with nearly three more to go, ushered in an era of Republican Party influence that has penetrated every level of government and brought pronouncements that Arkansas is approaching two-party status.

“The symbol of the rally of the Republican Party was the election of Mike Huckabee,” Dillard said. “The Democratic lock on the state is to a large degree broken. And I expect that will continue to change.”

In the state House of Representatives, there were usually only two Republicans from 1900 to 1982 and never more than one in the Senate. Two more state senators were elected in 1982. Term limits, which were voted in by the people and took effect in 1993, cleared a lot of longtime Democrats out of the statehouse, making it easier for Republicans to get a toehold. This year there are eight in the 35-member Senate and 30 in the 100-member House of Representatives.

Arkansas has been a little behind other Southern sates in developing a viable Republican Party. The late University of Arkansas political science professor Diane Blair, in her book “Arkansas Politics and Government: Do the People Rule?” contended it was the powerhouse trio of Dale Bumpers, David Pryor and Bill Clinton that kept the state Democratic when Republicanism began sweeping the Bible Belt.

By the 1990s, with Bumpers and Pryor in the U.S. Senate and Clinton in the White House, the state had no one to rally the Democrats, Blair wrote.

In fact, Clinton’s election as president in 1992 paved the way for Huckabee’s entry to statewide public office. When Clinton resigned to become president, Lt. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker was elevated to governor. Huckabee, who had gained statewide name recognition in an unsuccessful 1992 challenge to U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers, was elected in a special election to fill the lieutenant governor’s spot.

Huckabee was elevated to governor in 1996 when Tucker was convicted in the federal Whitewater investigation and forced to resign. (A federal court ultimately determined Tucker had been convicted under a statute that had already been repealed.)

Still, it’s hard to pigeonhole Arkansas voters. Currently, one of Arkansas’ four Congressmen is a Republican. Both U.S. senators are again Democrats. Of the state’s seven constitutional officers, only Huckabee and Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller are Republicans.

In 2000, with Clinton term-limited, Texas Republican George W. Bush carried Arkansas over Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, in the presidential election.

Two years ago, the Arkansas Poll conducted by the UA revealed that 33-36 percent of Arkansans considered themselves to be Democrats, 31-35 percent said they were independent and 23-27 percent said they were Republican.

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