“I woke up one morning as a ‘who’s who.’ I went to bed that same night a ‘who’s he?’ It happened just about that quickly.”
At 25-years-old, Steve Clark held the position of assistant dean at the University of Arkansas School of Law. At 29, he was chief of staff to Gov. David Pryor. That same year, a Little Rock newspaper featured Clark in an article titled, “Second Most Powerful Man in State Government,” to which Clark reminds me, jokingly, “I only have a hundred copies of that paper left if you’d like to have one.”
The man sitting on the couch across from me, though older, has the same political twinkle in his eye – the same quip and smile he had back when his career was just starting out.
“I come from a family where your career choices are farming, teaching, preaching or politics,” says Clark with a familiar grin, adding, “My analysis of my skills and my preferences was that I wanted to do politics, so from a very young age, I was fairly interested in serving in public service, and I was very interested in being governor.”
He was on his way.
In 1979, at age 31, Clark became the nation’s youngest attorney general. He argued eight cases in front of the United States Supreme Court, more than any other attorneys general in Arkansas history. In fact, only a few attorneys general in the entire country had ever accomplished that feat. He was a state treasurer, featured in The New York Times, on the “Today Show” and “Good Morning America.”
During his tenure as state’s attorney general, Clark was a staunch advocate for nursing home reform, missing and exploited children, and victims’ rights. In 1989, after more than a decade in the A.G.’s office, he was poised to challenge then Gov. Bill Clinton’s reelection bid in a Democratic primary for Arkansas governor, in which some polls showed the two in a dead heat.
“I was going to make it a competitive race, there was no doubt,” remembers Clark. “I might not have won, but it would’ve been close,” he says.
He had it all.
Clark announced for governor in January of 1990.
“Having been in the attorney general’s office for 12 years and having had some success, which I was very proud of, you get to reading your own stuff,” said Clark. “You get to thinking, you know, ‘wow, look at what I’ve done,’ and it’s never about what I’ve done, it’s about what are you doing today. You’ve got to contribute everyday, and I lost sight of that.”
Shortly after announcing his bid for governor, Clark was accused of using a state-issued credit card for personal use, racking up more than $28,000 over a three-year period.
“I woke up one morning and that investigation was there, and all that went forward, and yes, it changed,” recalls Clark. “It changed overnight.”
The past president of the National Association of Attorneys General was charged July 10 with one count of felony theft of property by deception, carrying a maximum penalty of up to 20 years in prison and $15,000 in fines.
“I was flying pretty high when I announced for governor and within 17 days I’m out of the governor’s race,” Clark said.
A New York Times article at the time detailed some of Clark’s alleged spending habits:
A state audit has shown that Mr. Clark spent $28,564 in state money on nonbusiness or personal expenses from 1986 to 1989. An affidavit filed by the Pulaski County Prosecutor and State Police in Pulaski County Circuit Court here showed 56 incidents in which Mr. Clark used his state Visa card for purposes other than reported on his expense account. One $761 charge in August 1988 included $500 for champagne, the affidavit stated. State laws prohibit the use of state money on alcohol.
In January, The Arkansas Gazette reported discrepancies in Mr. Clark’s expense accounts dating to May 1986 in which Mr. Clark said he dined with guests at hundreds of dinners to discuss state business. Many of the guests Mr. Clark listed in the expense accounts, including a Federal appeals court judge and a United States Representative, said they had never eaten with him. Some guests said the meals were social; others said they picked up the tab.
“At the time, in the context of how this was done, they were basically given to all of the constitutional officers and they said use them as you think is appropriate,” Clark explains. “You get to where your whole life is public life. You say you’re on 24/7/365, and you are to a degree. You always have to remember that you can stop. You can always stop.”
In October of 1990, after about eight days at trial, Clark says a jury found him guilty of using more than $200 but no more than $2,500 of the government’s money for personal use with no legitimate state purpose over a five-year period – the amount of which ended up being far less than the alleged amount. However, the damage was done.
According to Clark, he was ordered to pay a fine of $10,000 and court costs totaling roughly $6,500. Though he managed to avoid jail time, the punishment took a devastating toll on the once rising political star.
“My dream of being governor expired when I made those really bad choices,“ Clark admits.
He resigned his post as attorney general a few days later.
“It’s the lost opportunity,” Clark recalls, reflecting on the moment as he gazes out a window. “You had this opportunity to be in a place where you could make a difference. You’re no longer in that place. So, the question is why, and the answer is me.”
According to Clark, the days following his conviction only seemed to emphasize the true weight and reality of the situation.
“Where you would get invitations to give 500 speeches a year and 500 events, your phone didn’t ring,” recalls Clark. “Where you were having people walk across the street to say to you, ‘when you’re my governor, I’m going to be so proud’ – now they see you coming, so they walk to the other side of the street.”
“That’s when it got real in that sense.”
After his resignation in November of 1990, Clark spent the next two years in Jonesboro appealing his conviction, though he never succeeded.
If ever there were such a thing as rock bottom, Clark found his in the early ‘90s. After his efforts to overturn his conviction failed, Clark moved to Florida.
“I’d gotten a job with a large home health company,” he recalls. “They primarily hired me because of the people I knew. I did a lot of external relations.”
But the job was short lived.
“I’m not thriving,” Clark remembers thinking. So, with “some money in the bank,” as he described it, he left the company to start over, again.
“You try everything you worked for in the past,” Clark says, pressing his hands together. “You try to work harder. You try to work smarter. You try to be more engaging. You try to be more thoughtful and reflective. You try to be more creative. You try to be more tenacious.”
“None of those things worked for me.”
Toward the end of 1993, still jobless and with only $46.10 in his bank account, Clark was in trouble.
“I was literally on the floor of my apartment, weeping,” Clark recounts. “I owed everybody and their brother.”
“I thought, ‘I’ve got about two-and-a-half weeks left on this damn rent. I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do.’”
That’s when Clark received what he’s dubbed the “magic phone call.”
“Then a friend of mine called me and said, ‘I want you to come home (home being Memphis), and let’s go into business together’,” explains Clark, who despite having lots of questions, agreed to his friend’s gracious offer. Though he recalls one rather large problem.
“I can’t afford to get home,” Clark told his friend over the phone.
“He said, ‘I will overnight you a check so you can pay what you need to get home’,” Clark recalls. “That’s exactly what he did. FedEx came at 10 o’clock the next morning.”
A thankful and humble Clark arrived in Memphis at the end of 1993. Shortly thereafter, in 1994, Clark, his friend and another gentleman went into business together, establishing a very successful health care company.
“I worked my tail off,” Clark recalls.
The company’s success landed the once heralded Arkansan in Austin, Texas.
It was a new place, but more importantly, it was a new start.
“I wanted to be a different man,” says Clark. “I had been doing everything I was taught would get me where I was before, but it wasn’t working. Then I asked myself, ‘What is the only thing you never tried to change?’”
“John Barleycorn,” Clark answered. “Alcohol.”
“I stopped drinking on October 10, 1994,” Clark proudly declares – 19 years sober. “I put the plug in the jug, and I do that a day at a time, and, you know, by the grace of God, I’ve been sober since I got up this morning, so it’s been a good day.”
It was the difference maker, according to Clark.
STARTING OVER AGAIN
1998 was a mixed year for Clark.
It was the year he met and married his current wife, Suzanne, whom he credits with where he is today.
“There’s no one, and there’s no issue or thing that I love more than my wife,” Clark says. “I wouldn’t be where I am without her.”
That same year, the company Clark helped start, sold. He was starting over again, the third time in eight years. And to Clark’s surprise, this time was no easier than the first.
“I applied for about 40 jobs,” Clark recalls, joking, “I have a pretty good resume, until you get to that part that says alcoholic and felon.”
Of those 40 applications, he received just two interviews – neither of which ended with employment.
“I even applied to be a chauffeur,” Clark said, smiling. “I said, ‘I used to ride in the back, so I know what the guy in the front is supposed to do’. They wouldn’t even give me an interview.”
Clark eventually landed a job at a bookstore for a humble $6.50 an hour, but the pay didn’t matter to the former politician.
“There’s a dignity to having a job,” Clark says with a sincere tone, taking a moment to glance around his current office.
Clark received a raise 90 days into the job, bumping his pay to $7 an hour. He continued working at the bookstore until his wife suggested something different – yet familiar.
ON THE WAY BACK
“Why don’t you be a lawyer again?” Clark’s wife asked him.
“’They won’t let me do that. You don’t understand’, I told her,” Clark recalls. “’Why don’t we go ask’, she said.”
“I hated when she did that,” Clark jokes. “So, I go ask.”
To Clark’s surprise, the state of Texas allowed him to take the bar, explaining they practiced rehabilitation and believed he had “had enough.”
“I was thrilled,” recalls Clark. “It was going to cost $275. I couldn’t wait to write that check before they changed their minds.”
Clark graduated law school in 1971. It was now 1999. The law had evolved, and it reflected in Clark’s score.
“I failed by about 27 points,” says Clark, who studied even harder. “I signed up, took it again, and failed by about 17 points.”
For a dejected Clark, the third time was literally the charm.
“I passed,” said Clark. “I was thrilled. They wrote me a letter – I still have it, June 1, 2000 – that says, You are a lawyer. Go and do good.”
Back in 1996, Clark decided to apply for a pardon with then Gov. Mike Huckabee.
“I wrote Governor Huckabee a letter and said, ‘you should know I will be submitting, in a week or two, an application for a pardon,’” remembers Clark. “He actually called me and said he was going to give me a pardon if the board recommends me. They did, unanimously, but he didn’t.”
“I never knew why, but he didn’t.”
A couple of years later, Clark applied again, and again, the board unanimously recommended him.
“The governor sent me a letter,” recalls Clark. “It said, ‘I’ve decided not to decide.’”
Although he wondered why, Clark never questioned Huckabee’s decisions.
“I have a deep, abiding respect for the offices,” Clark says. “He was the governor. It would be presumptuous on my part to think that he needs to answer my question of ‘why.’”
Finally, in 2004, while in his Austin law firm, Clark received a phone call from Gov. Huckabee letting him know he had decided to grant the state’s former attorney general a pardon.
“I told him I wanted to find the most appropriate response but ‘right now, the best I’ve got is thank you. I’m humbled. Thank you.’”
To this day, Clark and Huckabee have never talked about the pardon or why the former governor refused to grant Clark’s previous requests.
From 2005 to 2007, Clark served as a professor of law at St. Thomas School of Law in Miami.
In 2007, Clark and his wife moved back to Fayetteville to be with family, and in 2008, Clark announced his bid for mayor. He was back in politics and back in the Natural State after a 17-year hiatus.
“I’ve still got a little bit of that left in me,” Clark recalls telling his family. “I still loved that public service thing, and I always said the best government is the one closest to the people.”
Clark ran and lost, finishing third out of six.
“I was eating lunch with my wife two days after the election trying to figure out what I wanted to do – what I wanted to be when I grew up,” jokes Clark.
This time, though, starting over would land Clark what he would later call his “new dream job.”
“I never even thought about the chamber job,” Clark recalls. “They were looking for a new chamber director, and I had interviewed for the job, but that was it.”
The Fayetteville Chamber chose Clark and offered him the job. The one-time self-described “radioactive” politician, quickly accepted. The journey home was complete.
“I landed at the right place,” Clark points out from the couch in his office at the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce. “I love this job. I honestly have the best job in Arkansas. There are people who make more money, but they don’t have a better job.”
Roughly 25 years ago, Steve Clark made a series of decisions. They were bad decisions with devastating consequences. But Clark will be the first to tell you that those consequences were appropriate and justified.
“I’m a very firm believer in it’s never right to do wrong, and it’s never wrong to do right,” says Clark. “When you do wrong, you have to be held accountable for the choices you make.”
We all make mistakes, but sometimes it’s more about how we deal with those mistakes that truly speaks to our character.
Steve Clark went from ‘who’s who’ to ‘who’s he’ in the span of 17 days. For 14 years, he was labeled a felon. He battled alcohol, he struggled with employment and, at one time, flirted with homelessness.
“Although it was a very painful episode in my life and a very difficult time for me personally, and for my family, it should have been all of those things,” reflects Clark. “In some ways, it was the very best thing that ever happened to me.”
He could have broken. Perhaps he should have. But he didn’t.
“If my life stands for anything, it’s do not quit,” Clark said.
As for a political future… Asked if he would ever run for anything else, Clark, paused briefly and responded with that same familiar grin: “I can’t imagine I would.”