From Gillett, Arkansas, a bipartisan plate full of coon

story and photos by Ryan Saylor, for Talk Business
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

A small southeast Arkansas town with a population of less than 1,000 residents hosted political leaders and candidates from across state, senators from as far away as Maine and reporters from across the nation for a night of fundraising and coon eating on Saturday night (Jan. 11).

The 71st annual Gillett Coon Supper saw Arkansas politicians gather for the tradition that has now become something of lore.

Gov. Mike Beebe, D-Ark., said it was the Gillett Coon Supper that gave him his start in Arkansas politics, leading to a 32-year career that he said will come to an end when he leaves office a year from now.

“It’s probably my last Coon Supper,” he said with a laugh. “I started here 32 years ago as their state senator, running for their state senator. And this is the place that really kicked off my campaign. Even though I was from Searcy, Gillett may have had more to do with starting my first political campaign than any place in Arkansas.”

Former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, who is seeking the Republican nomination to replace Beebe, said an event like the Coon Supper — which used to be a traditionally Democratic event — is starting to show the shift in the Arkansas electorate, with more Republicans such as himself coming to the event to meet voters one-on-one, practicing retail politics in its truest form.

“You know, I first came here in 1986, when Gov. Bill Clinton was here, Sen. (Dale) Bumpers was here, and at that time, Republicans…we were really not in this room. It was totally a Democratic function, so this state has changed in terms of politics and I think it’s good for the state whenever you see Republicans and Democrats here, all campaigning in small communities, I think that’s a real benefit for the people of Arkansas.”

The evening’s events, generally called the Gillett Coon Supper, are actually two separate events.

The first event of the evening is the Pre-Coon Supper, held at the farm of former U.S. Rep. Marion Berry, D-Gillett. It included the attendance of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Angus King, an independent from Maine, in addition to media including MSNBC and ABC News and print reporters from Washington.

According to Berry’s son, Mitch, the event started more than four decades ago as a pre-party for politicians and was held at Berry’s Gillett home.

“You know, they’ve been doing it as long as I can remember, and I’m 41 years old. It started in Mom and Dad’s house, which is right across from the school. People would stop by, get a drink and something to eat before they went over to the Coon Supper. When Dad became a member of Congress, he started using it as a fundraiser.”

Following Berry’s retirement from Congress in 2010, the event became a fundraiser that would provide scholarships to Arkansas State University students doing an internship with a member of the Congressional delegation in Washington, Mitch said, adding that working with interns was one of his father’s great joys while a member of the House.

The last several years Berry supporters have worked to raise the money to start the scholarship, with patrons to the Pre-Coon Supper paying $40 per person for a plate that included duck and other items with the hope that this year’s event would raise the more than $13,000 needed to fully endow the scholarship, a goal Mitch said was met.

Gabe Holmstrom, chief of staff for the Arkansas House of Representatives, serves as the lead organizer of the event at the Berry farm, which he said is not about making political speeches and spouting off talking points.

“There’s no real speaking program here. We’re just here to have a good time and hopefully to mix and mingle,” he said, adding that the event has grown to have sponsors including CJRW, Noble Strategies and Justin Allen with Wright, Lindsey & Jennings Law Firm.

The actual Gillett Coon Supper, which takes place in the school’s gymnasium, offers an opportunity for locals and non-locals alike to hear from candidates, many of whom are seeking statewide office.

But according to local Tommy Holzhauer, who has been involved with organizing the dinner since 1982, the purpose of the event is to help local students, with the goal of this year’s event to raise $20,000.

“It was designed really to raise money, the Farmers and Businessmen Club of Gillett liked helping the football programs and all of that before we lost our schools (to the consolidation with DeWitt). Now we do quite a bit of scholarship programs. It is really a great organization.”

And while the focus of the evening was on food, drinks and meeting the voters, the news of Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Darr’s impending resignation on Feb. 1 following a finding by the Ethics Commission that he violated 11 state ethics laws was a topic of conversation.

Beebe, who said Darr did not notify him of his intentions before announcing his resignation, said the Lt. Governor’s decision to step aside was the right one. But anyone expecting Beebe to soon announce a special election date should have pause, according to the governor.

“It looks like from preliminary research that I may not have any choice (but to call a special election instead of leaving the position vacant). It looks like it might be required to have a special election. If there was some way we could avoid it, I’m certainly amenable to that. But that may not be an option. We’re going to explore all options and talk to lots of folks. Get some guidance from the attorney general.”

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, D-Ark., was at the event and said he had not yet had a chance to explore the laws.

“Truthfully, I haven’t researched it, but my basic understanding is the governor will declare a vacancy. And the circumstances that warrant that is when there’s a vacancy, and clearly there will be,” he said, adding that he thinks the definition is clear.

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House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, said he and other legislators have been exploring how to change laws regarding filling the Lt. Governor’s vacancy.

“There’s a chance we may change the law in the fiscal session so we don’t have to have a special election this close to the general election. You’re talking $2 million or $2.5 million for a special election, so we’re talking about giving the governor the flexibility through changing the laws to either call or not call a special election.”

Democrat John Burkhalter, who had declared his intent to run for Lt. Governor last year before there was any expectation of a vacancy in the office, said he would seek the position regardless of what the General Assembly decided to do, adding that he thought it was important to have the position filled.

“Fiscally, I’m conservative. I don’t think we should spend dollars we don’t have to, but I think there is a way we can time probably the special primary the same time as the primary for the general election, so we only have to have the special general election sometime in July or August, so we eliminate half the cost right there.”

Beebe said he would continue to consult with leaders in the House and Senate on what his next moves should be regarding the upcoming vacancy in the Lt. Governor’s office, in addition to seeking counsel from McDaniel’s office.

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