opinion by Maylon Rice
Editor’s note: Maylon Rice is a former newspaper reporter, columnist and editor at several newspapers over the past 40 years. He ran, unsuccessfully for the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2012. A native of Warren, Rice lives in Fayetteville.
Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of The City Wire.
Before the 2014 political season began, we steeled ourselves, remembering to be leery of the on-coming barrage of advertisements filled by a legion of unknown faces and making down-right alarming accusations about our elected officials.
We knew we could count on hearing (and seeing the images) U.S. Senator Mark Pryor and Congressman Tom Cotton’s voices on these acidic-laced ads. We have not been shocked to see Congressman Cotton repeatedly use photos of his combat fatigues in various global addresses of military war.
Nor were we surprised at Christmas when our senior U.S. Senate sat beside a cozy warm fireplace and brandished the Holy Bible, making a point about how his faith directs his senatorial actions every day.
We are certain to continue see even more from both sides in which actors and actresses parroting various lines from a TV stage are made to look like a middle class Arkansas kitchen.
There is that strangely familiar looking blonde who starts off so gently talking about what’s fair and right. But suddenly she says it’s not about Obama (and as the camera gets closer and closer) she asks you to call Senator Pryor and have him to put people before programs by putting an end to Obamacare.
Say what? You ask yourself, “What just happened?”
We are also expecting some “real” Arkansans recognized as “movers and shakers” to appear for the candidates in still photos and maybe film footage from such events as Razorback football game tailgates and various farmer’s markets.
What we didn’t expect to see this early was two former “players” in the Arkansas political game – retired Congressman Marion Berry of Gillett and former gas utility had Sheffield Nelson – begin a war of words.
The wrote op-ed pieces touting their candidates while gutting the other. Berry and Nelson are taking on each other like two mid-17th century theologians arguing over the number of days until the Resurrection. These men stepped off into the religiosity of the candidates.
Berry was a long tenured Congressman from the Arkansas Delta. He ran when the moons aligned and a pregnant (with twins) Congresswoman Blanche Lambert Lincoln gave up her U.S. House seat. A life-long Democrat, Berry later proved a formidable Congressman. He twice thrashed GOP juggernaut Tommy Robinson (66% to 34%) in back-to-back campaigns in 2002 and 2004. Robinson was a former Pulaski County Sheriff and 2nd District Congressman, until Berry retired Robinson back to manage his wife’s Liquor Store in east Arkansas.
In other words, Berry knows how to throw a punch. And he doesn’t ever pull one either when writing letters to the editor or an opinion piece.
Conversely, out of the ashes of several failed campaigns for political offices and a dust up or two with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission comes the silver-haired (once his locks were blindingly blonde) Sheffield Nelson. A self-made man, Nelson rose from personal poverty to grab the coattails of the natural gas patriarch of the Stephens clan – W.R. “Witt’ Stephens. Nelson would become the youthful chairman of Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co., at one time one of the largest utilities in Arkansas and the mid-South.
Nelson is no slouch but he does have one Achilles heel in all this discussion: He was once a recognized Democrat. Today Nelson is a Republican.
The topic that got these two men battling it out was, of all things, Pryor’s religion. Nelson, in an op-ed piece in the Democrat-Gazette, sniped at Mark Pryor’s religion while seeking to boost the profile of Congressman Tom Cotton. Berry last week wrote a similar piece to set the record straight. Both sides used down home imagery, plain talk and outrage at the other.
In an op-ed piece in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Berry came out swinging, writing: “One of the things I’ve always loved about Arkansas is its sense of dignity. Sure, when we disagree, we huff and argue and kick the dirt, but at the end of the day, Arkansans respect each other, even if they disagree.”
Nelson in a similar piece first called into question Pryor’s yuletide commercial where the U.S. Senator expressed his faith. Nelson had written: “…he couldn’t find an example where someone in politics had embraced the Bible before.” That was all it took for Berry to accuse Nelson of a lack of dignity, having no respect and that his letter was just more “smack talk” about Pryor. All of this took place in the public arena.
Until last week.
Straight from the post office box came a letter bearing the non-federal return address for Congressman Marion Berry, 1000 West 3rd Street, Little Rock, Arkansas 72201 – that is the address for the Markham Group, an advertising agency. Inside the letter purportedly from the Congressman is an appeal for help, political and financial, for Pryor.
And the note is a bit of an issue/talking point communication with underlined phrases and bold face type denoting the various things that are being perpetrated by the evil Tom Cotton forces against Mark Pryor.
Has Nelson also authored a similar piece extolling Cotton’s virtues and shilling for campaign silver? We do not know.
So what is this battle of words really all about? Is it simply what two old grizzled political opposites have to say about one another? Or is it just another campaign ploy meant to muddy the political waters long before the November vote?
Both men ought to know better. You can’t fool all Arkansans all the time.
Or can you? And more importantly, did they try to fool us? That might inflict even more damage from us strangely independent Arkansans than the words they wrote about each other.