Arkansas owes the late Hayes McClerkin a debt of gratitude

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 699 views 

While many Arkansans rightfully mourn the loss of the late Sen. Dale Bumpers, the state lost another great politician this week.

Not as many people will remember Hayes McClerkin but his contributions to our great state are profound. He died Wednesday January 6, 2016 having just turned 84 years old.

Hayes was an attorney and State Representative from Texarkana, a friend of Ross Perot’s, but a Democrat who rose through the ranks to serve as Speaker of the House in the 1969 Arkansas General Assembly. I met Hayes when I first came to the Arkansas legislature as a 20-something year old aide to then Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, who had risen to the post after the election of Bill Clinton as President in late 1992.

McClerkin was a legislative liaison to Tucker during his first regular legislative session in January 1993. Hayes wore bow ties, was smart as a whip, had a wicked sense of humor, and still had great political instincts despite being away from the halls of the capitol for 20 years or more.

As they greet each other in heaven, I suspect Dale Bumpers is thankful to be reuniting with Hayes McClerkin for it was Hayes who contributed to Bumpers’ storybook career in a roundabout way.

In the summer of 1970, a crowded field of Democrats were vying for the nomination to take on Republican incumbent Winthrop Rockefeller. The legend of Dale Bumpers narrowly defeating Joe Purcell for the runoff spot in the Democratic primary to take on frontrunner Orval Faubus is well-chronicled.

But the fourth place finisher in that Democratic primary was none other than McClerkin, who was also running for governor, and he played a pivotal role in that race.

Hayes McClerkin
Hayes McClerkin

Purcell was known for being “a nice guy” and Bumpers started the race as an outsider with one percent name recognition, so he spent a lot of the campaign introducing himself to voters. As his popularity and momentum grew, Bumpers mostly stuck to the script of being a young, articulate and pleasant alternative to the status quo.

But McClerkin was an attack dog on Faubus. Every campaign stop he made, he lit into the former governor known for his Central High crusade against integration and the cronyism that dogged his 12 years in office. McClerkin was merciless and his attacks on Faubus did a lot of the dirty work and political damage that the other candidates didn’t have to get tagged with. This wasn’t a conspiracy among candidates, it’s just the way the field and the campaign played out. McClerkin wanted to be governor, but more importantly, he didn’t want Faubus to be governor again.

The end result is that Bumpers got to keep a squeaky clean image with a positive campaign, while the others – mainly McClerkin – punched Faubus in the proverbial gut on a daily basis. Or as Hayes would say with a big grin, “I was just reminding people of Faubus’ record.”

For Bumpers, it was perfect political timing and the rest is history.

Hayes McClerkin taught me a lot in those months we worked together for Gov. Tucker. He (and others) showed me nuances in the legislative process that I still find myself reading today. But my all-time favorite Hayes McClerkin story involved a time he reported back to Gov. Tucker after a committee hearing. The governor was trying to pass legislation to institute user fees for Department of Health inspection services in order to preserve general revenues in the health department’s budget for other areas.

In the Public Health committee meeting, the legislation was ripped apart by opponents and couldn’t muster a motion for “Do Pass.” Hayes reported the debacle to Tucker and I was in the room for the eye-opening conversation that went something like this.

The governor asked McClerkin, “What if we lowered the user fee in half? Would they go for that?”

“No, governor,” McClerkin patiently answered.

“What if we delayed its implementation to factor in new users, not existing ones?” Tucker replied.

“They’re not going to go for that either, governor,” McClerkin said calmly.

“What if…” Tucker began, but McClerkin cut him off:

“Governor, you can only sell shit on a stick as a fudge-sicle one time.”

Though Hayes made that point to Gov. Tucker on his bill, it’s applicable to his gift to the Arkansas electorate. He made sure voters didn’t go for Faubus 2.0. Dale Bumpers benefitted from his contributions in that race and the state is better off today because of it.

RIP, Hayes McClerkin. Thanks for the great stories, your friendship, and the education you imparted in me. You and Dale stay out of trouble up there in the clouds.