Po­lit­i­cal can­non fod­der

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 rexnel­son­south­ern­fried.com.

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.”

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