If you ask Conner Eldridge about his political future don’t expect an answer. The 37-year-old Prosecuting Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas responds to political questions with a wide grin, twinkling eyes and initial silence. One gets the sense he is flattered by the question but the political animal inside that may one day propel him to other heights has the discipline to convert the lull of flattery into the safety of sincerity.
“I am focused on doing this job every single day. I love this job. I wish I could do it for a long, long time,” Eldridge said. “I will probably have another job in my career. But whatever job that is, I think that I will always consider my time here to be so rewarding, and I hopefully have a lot of time left here.”
You want to believe him. He’s got that eastern Arkansas way of speaking – a little bit of long draw on the consonants and vowels with a reassuring lilt that almost places the listener in a mental beach hammock. Others possessing similar linguistic subtleties include Messrs. Pryor (David), Clinton and Huckabee.
Just a few days before the interview for this story, Eldridge sat across a federal court room from a lawyer who not only once held his job, but was just a few days away from being elected the next Arkansas Governor. Gov.-elect Asa Hutchinson was 31 when he became the Prosecuting Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas. Eldridge was 33, and his background is considerably more political, and possibly broad, than was the young Hutchinson.
A BRIEF BIO
William Conner Eldridge Jr. was born in Fayetteville in 1977. He lived in Augusta, Ark., through the sixth grade. Mary Tull and Bill Eldridge then moved the family to Lonoke, where Conner would complete high school. He graduated Davidson College – a private, Presbyterian institution in North Carolina – in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in English. He earned his juris doctorate in 2003 from the Arkansas School of Law. (Hutchinson graduated from Bob Jones University, a private evangelical college in South Carolina, before graduating from the Arkansas School of Law.)
Following law school, Eldridge was a clerk for U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Eisele of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas. He has interned for U.S. Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark. and worked on the senate campaign of U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark. He also worked with U.S. Rep. Marion Berry. Other short clerking stints include the Prosecuting Attorney for Washington County and the prominent law firms of Wright, Lindsey and Jennings, and Mitchell Williams
Eldridge also worked as a special deputy prosecutor for the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s office.
After marrying into the family (Whipple) with a controlling interest in Arkadelphia-based Summit Bancorp, Eldridge worked at Summit Bank and would become the bank’s CEO in 2008 – a year before being nominated by Democratic U.S. Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor for Western District Prosecutor.
Not only did he pack much activity into the years between graduating Davidson and becoming a U.S. Prosecuting Attorney, but each step expanded his connections to Arkansas’ upper echelon of business and politics.
And in Arkansas it’s safe to add to his political resume his passion for duck and deer hunting.
THE FEDERAL JOB
He’s now four years into a job that has him and 20 assistant U.S. attorneys – and a total staff of around 45 – responsible to represent the government in a 34-county district. Eldridge said he worked hard to know as much as possible about the office prior to taking the job in December 2010.
“There is no time for on-the-job-training with this job,” Eldridge said.
Some of his priorities as the top prosecutor for the district was to “cultivate a culture that does the right thing,” to be aware of all the cases handled by the office and to also be the lead attorney on some of the cases. Many U.S. Attorneys do not handle cases.
“That was really important to me, particularly coming in relatively young, I wanted everybody to know I was here, and am here, to work cases along side everybody here and not just to be a figurehead. I’m here to be a prosecutor.”
Eldridge said he was not fully prepared for all aspects of the job.
“You don’t really understand the weight and the greatness of the responsibility that comes with being a federal prosecutor,” Eldridge said. “And that cuts both ways. Great and weighty in that you got to make a decision about whether to charge somebody or not. And the way you stay true is making that for the right reasons like we discussed earlier.”
DEALING WITH ‘THE HORRIBLE THINGS’
He’s also “astounded” at the number of pedophile cases and “the horrible things that people do to little, little kids.”
While a prosecutor’s office may be seen as reactive, Eldridge said his office will work in 2015 to be proactive with respect to pushing back against child abuse in the district. He said the office is “uniquely positioned” to provide info to parents about how to protect their child and to be an advocate for the communities on child abuse. The effort will include tough conversations with the public, because “as gruesome as the details can be” the public needs to know what people are capable of. He also plans to help people detect child abuse situations, Eldridge said.
“When you see (videos) of small children being raped and that stuff put on the Internet … those cases really are tough but I feel very convicted about them. It’s not enough for us to go throw the person in jail for the rest of their life, that’s our primary responsibility … but also we need to go out and really tell those stories.”
Those stories hit close to home. Eldridge and his wife, Mary Elizabeth, have three boys – Will (7), Henry (3) and Tull (2). But Eldridge has an advantage over other parents. While the acts against children do anger him, he is able to redirect that anger.
“(I)t’s hard to prosecute a child pornography case and go home. That’s tough, and to think about what somebody has done to some other kid that’s the same age as one of my kids. … But the great part of this job is you get to be convicted and say, ‘You know what? Not only do I think that’s one of the worst crimes I’ve ever seen, but I get to wake up and do something about that.’ … So, you channel it (anger) into aggressively prosecuting those folks who commit those crimes.”
THE BARBER CASE
To Eldridge’s chagrin, the media was more attentive to the financial fraud case involving Brandon Barber than they have been with the child abuse cases.
Barber, once a high-profile and popular developer during the heady days of seemingly non-stop Northwest Arkansas commercial development, was arrested March 20, 2013, on several federal charges. Barber in July 2013 admitted guilt in various schemes to prop up his Northwest Arkansas real estate and development company between 2005 and 2009. The charges Barber plead guilty to included conspiracy to commit bankruptcy fraud, conspiracy to commit bank fraud and money laundering. He was sentenced in October 2014 to five years and five months in prison. The sentence was almost half of what Eldridge’s office sought. Based on possible reductions in the sentence and his time served, Barber’s sentence could fall to a little more than three years.
Eldridge said his time as a bank officer – rare among federal prosecutors – served him well during the Barber investigation.
“Having worked at the bank allowed me to really look in and see what happened with each of these loans, really pinpoint the fraud in each of those situations. So I definitely feel like that was a great strength,” Eldridge said. “There is a lot of financial evidence and you really have to get into the minutiae of how loans are approved, how developers function. Because our job is not to prosecute folks, who, for whatever reason have a bad business deal. Our job is to prosecute crime, and there is a huge difference. You’ve got to be really intellectually honest to parse that difference.”
Barber’s actions did not make him popular in Arkansas’ banking circles, but Eldridge said he never felt pressure from banker friends to go hard after Barber. He said the people “who know me will know that I’m going to shut that (pressure) down pretty quick.”
While Eldridge’s political work has been with Democrats, his historic role model in the legal world is Abraham Lincoln. And two prominent Republicans, Gov.-elect Hutchinson and former Eastern District of Arkansas Prosecuting Attorney Bud Cummins, have been among those he has sought out for advice.
“I’ve definitely developed a good relationship with him (Hutchinson) the couple of years before coming here, and we had a number of conversations about the approach to the job. You know, no one has done more in federal law enforcement in our state’s history, I’d venture to say, than him. I mean, with running DEA and being at Homeland Security, so he not only had a perspective on this job, but also a perspective on those law enforcement agencies. And that was really helpful to me as I thought about what I was going to do.”
Politics has never been a part of the support he received before and during his latest job. He said there is a political process to get the job, but that’s where it stops.
“You have all this political talk about we need to check the jerseys at the door. The jerseys really are checked the door in this job. They really are, and they should be. … It is completely apolitical. It is completely intellectually honest. And like I’ve said, that is really rewarding work. For folks that care about making a difference and don’t care about all the rigamarole that comes with the bickering that goes on, there is probably no environment better than this for really looking at, and I know I’m sounding like a broken record, but looking at the facts, looking at the law and then doing what’s right.”
He said part of the great environment also includes getting to know law enforcement officials and community leaders in the 34 counties in the district.
“That is incredible work to me. … To be able to do that, I don’t want to take a day of that for granted. I cannot overemphasize that I really love this job,” he said.
Several years of work of building connections in the 34 counties also sounds like a great way to build a political base for future careers.
Eldridge doesn’t take the bait with the question. His body language is open but his mouth is closed. He just grins. He may be quiet about his future, but his future is likely to be anything but.