The Round Ta­ble

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Rex Nel­son Se­nior Ed­i­tor Rex Nel­son’s col­umn ap­pears reg­u­larly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He’s also the au­thor of the South­ern Fried blog at rexnel­son­south­ern­

When I read that the cafe­te­ria in the base­ment of the state Capi­tol would close for the sum­mer, my first thought was: “What on earth will Don Allen think about this?”

Allen, 86, is a leg­endary Arkansas lob­by­ist and was the pa­tri­arch of the Round Ta­ble, the break­fast spot in the cafe­te­ria where pol­i­tics, sports, the weather, crop con­di­tions and other sub­jects were dis­cussed for decades. Allen be­came a Round Ta­ble reg­u­lar in 1972 when he joined the staff of then-Gov. Dale Bumpers. For years, he could be found in the same seat on week­day morn­ings, hav­ing ar­rived by 5:20 a.m.

The of­fice of Sec­re­tary of State Mark Martin an­nounced in May that sewer-line re­pairs would re­quire clos­ing the en­tire Capi­tol from May 19-21. The work in the cafe­te­ria was far more ex­ten­sive than in other parts of the build­ing, re­sult­ing in its clo­sure for sev­eral months. The state ter­mi­nated its con­tract with Pam Kirch­ner, whose fam­ily had op­er­ated the cafe­te­ria for al­most four decades.

When the cafe­te­ria re­opens with an up­dated look and new man­age­ment, we can only hope that the Round Ta­ble is still in place. Cer­tain tra­di­tions are im­por­tant. When Allen be­gan com­ing to the base­ment for break­fast, leg­is­la­tors such as Rep. Lloyd Reid Ge­orge of Danville and

John Miller of Mel­bourne ruled the roost at the Round Ta­ble. Those two leg­is­la­tors are gone now, but there are brass name­plates on the ta­ble not­ing that their seats are “re­served in per­pe­tu­ity.” The name­plates were pur­chased by Ge­orge Jerni­gan, a for­mer chair­man of the Arkansas Demo­cratic Party and the Po­lit­i­cal An­i­mals Club. When some­one dies, name­plates are moved from the ac­tual ta­ble to the Lazy Su­san in the mid­dle.

Ge­orge, who died in Fe­bru­ary 2012 at age 85, was a noted racon­teur who was born in 1926 in his grand­par­ents’ house at Cen­ter­ville in Yell County. He grew up at Ola, grad­u­ated from Hen­drix Col­lege at Con­way and was a coach and teacher at Fourche Val­ley, Ola, Mor­ril­ton and Gil­lett. Ge­orge later bor­rowed money from his fa­ther and grand­mother to open a bu­tane gas com­pany at Danville, where he was elected mayor. He first was elected to the Arkansas House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in 1962 and served a to­tal of 28 years. Ge­orge would cel­e­brate the fi­nal day of leg­isla­tive ses­sions by wear­ing over­alls, sig­ni­fy­ing that it was time to head back to the farm in Yell County.

Miller, who died in June 2014, lived in Izard County for 84 of his 85 years. He grad­u­ated in 1949 from what’s now Arkansas State Univer­sity at Jones­boro and worked in his fam­ily re­tail busi­ness be­fore spend­ing four years as the county clerk. He later opened an in­sur­ance agency, a ti­tle ab­stract busi­ness and a real es­tate firm. Miller was elected to the House in 1958, the start of a 40-year leg­isla­tive ca­reer in which he be­came rec­og­nized as the ex­pert on the state bud­get.

The third name­plate on the Lazy Su­san be­longs to for­mer House mem­ber Wil­liam K. “Mac” McGe­hee of Fort Smith, who was elected to the Leg­is­la­ture in 1996 and was found dead of nat­u­ral causes in his apart­ment in the Capi­tol Hill Build­ing ad­ja­cent to the Capi­tol just be­fore the 1999 leg­isla­tive ses­sion. McGe­hee was given his “re­served in per­pe­tu­ity” name­plate be­cause he had the cur­rent Lazy Su­san made by the River­side Fur­ni­ture Co. in Fort Smith and then flew it to Lit­tle Rock in his pri­vate plane.

“It’s a lot big­ger than the old Lazy Su­san,” Allen once told me. “Ge­orge Jerni­gan gave us the old one, but it was hard to reach.” The Lazy Su­san tra­di­tion­ally was cov­ered with bot­tles of bar­be­cue sauce, hot sauce and pep­per sauce, along with jars of honey, sorghum mo­lasses and home­made jel­lies, jams and pre­serves that leg­is­la­tors would bring from their dis­tricts. The ta­ble was con­structed by the staff of Sec­re­tary of State Bill McCuen, who later was im­pris­oned for cor­rup­tion in of­fice. McCuen died of can­cer at age 57 in 2000. He put his sig­na­ture on seem­ingly ev­ery­thing at the Capi­tol dur­ing his decade as sec­re­tary of state and had a soft spot for those who sat at the Round Ta­ble. The cur­rent ta­ble—the smaller ver­sion used in ear­lier years was moved to the other side of the cafe­te­ria—was made out of left­over ply­wood from a Christ­mas dis­play.

Ithought the Round Ta­ble’s days were num­bered when Arkansas vot­ers in Novem­ber 2014 ap­proved an ethics amend­ment that would no longer al­low lob­by­ists to buy break­fast for leg­is­la­tors. For years, lob­by­ists had been putting money in the pot to fund break­fast for leg­is­la­tors. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and sen­a­tors who were in­vited to sit at the ta­ble went through the line, got what they wanted and had their pur­chases recorded in a spi­ral-bound note­book that rested next to the cash reg­is­ter.

“When the ethics amend­ment passed, we de­cided to shut down the ta­ble,” said long­time lob­by­ist Ron Har­rod. “But you know what? Not a sin­gle leg­is­la­tor com­plained about hav­ing to buy break­fast. We found out that it was about the fel­low­ship rather than the food. We’re not al­lowed to buy them break­fast, al­though one of them could buy me break­fast.”

There are still two brass name­plates on the ac­tual ta­ble. One be­longs to Allen, who be­came the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the po­lit­i­cally pow­er­ful Arkansas Poul­try Fed­er­a­tion in 1976 and held the job un­til 2000 when he re­tired. He later rep­re­sented other in­ter­ests at the Capi­tol. The other name­plate be­longs to Tim Mas­sanelli, who be­came the House par­lia­men­tar­ian in 1973 and served for 38 years un­til re­tir­ing in 2011.

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