Political cannon fodder
Ken Coon understood his mission in 1974. It was to be the equivalent of political cannon fodder, running as the Republican nominee for governor against David Pryor, the former 4th District congressman from Camden who remained highly popular across Arkansas. As you’ve probably guessed by now, Pryor won easily.
Fueled by the millions of dollars injected into the political system by Winthrop Rockefeller, the Republican Party of Arkansas enjoyed a brief resurgence in the state. After losing the governor’s race to incumbent Democrat Orval Faubus in 1964, Rockefeller returned in 1966 to become the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. He was elected to a second two-year term in 1968. Friends and political aides convinced him to seek a third term in 1970. Tired and ailing, Rockefeller ran a halfhearted campaign that year, losing handily to a political phenomenon from Charleston named Dale Bumpers, who had emerged from an eight-man Democratic primary to beat Faubus in a runoff.
Rockefeller died of pancreatic cancer in February 1973, and the Republican Party found itself in the wilderness again. Republican Len Blaylock ran against Bumpers in 1972 and lost. For the remainder of the decade, Republicans would field loyal party members in the governor’s race in order for the GOP to remain on the ballot. After Coon lost to Pryor in 1974, Leon Griffith lost to Pryor in 1976, and Lynn Lowe lost to Bill Clinton in 1978.
The story of those hapless GOP candidates for governor in the 1970s illustrates the 180-degree political turn Arkansas has taken since the 2010 election cycle. Now, it’s the Democratic Party scrambling for a gubernatorial candidate for 2018 in what appears to be a suicide mission against Republican incumbent Asa Hutchinson.
”I was the executive director of the party in 1974 and was the only one they could tell what to do,” Coon said during a recent lunch in downtown Little Rock. “They couldn’t afford to have Joe Weston as the nominee.” Weston, a controversial weekly newspaper editor from Cave City, had paid the small GOP filing fee to run for governor. Coon, who had lost a race for lieutenant governor to Democrat Bob Riley of Arkadelphia in 1972, was told to knock Weston off in the GOP primary to prevent the party the embarrassment of having him on the ballot against Pryor in the fall.
Coon, 81, is now retired in Mountain View. He recently completed a hardbound volume titled
Heroes and Heroines of the Journey: The Builders of the Modern Republican Party of Arkansas. It’s a scrapbook of sorts that contains lists of Republican officeholders, essays by prominent Arkansas Republicans and information on each of the 75 county committees. It provides a wealth of information for those interested in the state’s political history.
Coon graduated from high school at Calhoun in northern Louisiana, and became involved in politics in 1964 when he put up signs for failed Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. Coon had obtained his bachelor’s degree from Louisiana Tech in 1962 and a master’s degree in biology from Utah State in 1964 after five years in the U.S. Air Force. He came to Arkansas as a fisheries biologist for the federal government and became active in the Jaycees and the Republican Party. Jaycee chapters were breeding grounds for Arkansas political candidates in those days, though most of the candidates were Democrats.
Coon, who worked for a private fish farmer from 1966-70, took a job teaching biology in 1970 at Westark Community College, now the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. In December 1972, Neal Sox Johnson of Nashville resigned as executive director of the Arkansas GOP to accept a position in the Nixon administration. Charles Bernard of Earle, the GOP chairman, convinced Coon to give up his teaching career. With Rockefeller gone, Coon realized what the party faced.
“It will be a challenge to get candidates for office until the party becomes a winner,” Coon said at a news conference. “Most of the Republican candidates went into the election knowing the problems they would have to face. They ran for office knowing that they would probably lose. We should concentrate our efforts on trying to elect the candidates who have a good chance of winning. It’s a waste of resources to run for office when you have little chance of winning.”
Coon, who served as executive director until 1976, spent dozens of nights away from home each year trying to build county committees. He had become familiar with all parts of Arkansas as the 1971-72 president of the Arkansas Jaycees. After Frank White upset Clinton in 1980, Coon left a job at Arkansas Blue Cross & Blue Shield to serve in White’s cabinet as head of what then was known as the Employment Security Division. He received his doctorate in counseling from the University of Arkansas in 1978. Coon started a consulting business after White was defeated in a 1982 rematch with Clinton and also taught college classes. Coon remained active in politics, chairing the Arkansas Republican Party from 1988-90.
Researching the history of Arkansas Republicanism has been a labor of love for Coon the past four years. He’s not surprised that the GOP is now the state’s majority party.
“I knew it would happen sooner or later because we’re more in line with Arkansas values,” Coon says. “I just didn’t think I would live to see it. Now the Democratic Party is where we were in the early 1970s. I can tell you that it’s a helpless feeling.”