Sunday, November 20, 2011

Rurality Here and There, Then and Now (Part VII): The entanglement of state and local politics

I wrote in a recent post of my oral history interview with Guy Bennett, sheriff of Newton County, Arkansas, from 1960 to 1966. This is the second part of my post about Bennett, and I'm writing it as part at of my "Rurality Then and Now, Here and There" series and focusing on how what Bennett told me helps illuminate the relationship between county officials and state government, particularly in relation to the political machines operating at both scales.

One thing that became clear from the interview with Bennett was his perception of the connections he enjoyed with Arkansas governors over a number of years. In the prior post I wrote of how local Democratic Party luminaries recruited Bennett to run for county sheriff. Later in the interview, Bennett referred to a number of visits he made to the Arkansas governor's mansion for both official and Democratic Party-related purposes. Bennett told me, for example, how he visited the mansion when David Pryor was governor (1975-1979), and how his daughter, then a teenager, babysat for the Pryor children. (Pryor went on to serve as one of Arkansas's U.S. Senator from 1979 to 1997, and his son, Mark Pryor, now holds the same seat his father held).

One of Bennett's trips to the Governor's Mansion is memorialized by the photo above, which shows five high-level Newton County Democrats at the Arkansas Governor's Mansion with Governor Pryor, fourth from right in white suit. From left to right, the others are an unnamed Boone County official, Garland Bryant, Herman Haddock (long-time superintendent of Jasper School), Hillary Jones, Governor David Pryor, Guy Bennett, an unknown Boone County official, and Howard Norton. The Newton County men were all stalwarts of local Democratic Party politics. Howard Norton was long-time Newton County judge. Hillary Jones became good enough friends with Bill Clinton over Clinton's time in elective office in Arkansas that Clinton attended Jones's funeral in the mid 1990s, flying into the tiny airport in Harrison, Arkansas on Air Force One to do so. That friendship was forged largely due to Hillary Jones's work to deliver up votes for Clinton during this numerous campaigns, for U.S. House of Representatives, Arkansas Attorney General, and Governor of Arkansas.

The walls of Bennett's modest home are lined with numerous other photos of himself with the state's Democratic Party leaders and letters and citations from both state and national officials. There's even a letter from President Bill Clinton, on White House stationery, congratulating Guy and Tom Bennett on a milestone wedding anniversary, probably their 55th. The Arkansas State Legislature passed a resolution in 2008 recognizing Bennett's extensive public service in Newton County, including as sheriff. And Bennett showed me a treasured box of campaign buttons that run from the local and dated (Thelma Pruitt, my mother, for county treasurer) to the national and recent (an Obama-Biden button!). Photo at left.

Indeed, Bennett enjoyed discussing pol
itics at all scales when I conducted the oral history interview with him. I was somewhat surprised to hear his vigorous defense of President Obama, but not to hear his criticism of Republican county officials and former Republican governors. Bennett opined that Romney will likely get the Republican nomination for President next year. When I asked him why he was a Democrat, his answer started in a way similar to most other Newton Countians I have interviewed, some version of "My daddy was a Democrat; my family has always voted Democratic." But then his answer turned more thoughtful as he discussed the policies of presidents like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, who worked to establish a Great Society with a meaningful safety net for the less fortunate. Bennett recalled that from an early age he listened to Presidential radio addresses with his father.

Bennett also talked about the history of vote-buying in Newton County and how it played out during his era as a public official and a Democratic Party leader. Bennett said it was late in his final term as Sheriff when he learned that votes were being bought on his behalf. Bennett actually named the names of the family who were accepting money for votes when he learned this, and he observed how the family used the money to buy winter clothes. Bennett said he immediately denounced the practice, which he saw as tantamount to "selling your soul." Bennett didn't run for office again--in part, he said, because he was worn out. Bennett condemned both the Democrats and Republicans for buying votes, noting how some voters had a reputation for seeking the highest bidder for their votes and how a Republican county judge (chief administrative officer in the county) had served time in federal prison for buying votes. Read more here.

The final story Bennett told about his days as sheriff was perhaps the most interesting--particularly as regards state-county relations. Then-Governor Orval Faubus (who served from 1955-1967) asked Bennett to help secure a jug of moonshine--and it had to be corn moonshine--for the Governor of Tennessee. Bennett reminded me that he had been arresting those operating wildcat stills in Newton County, so he turned instead to a Pope County purveyor for the coveted moonshine, finally delivering it in a brown paper bag to state troopers at the Governor's Mansion. "I think they knew what was in the bag," he said mischievously.

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