Mark Pryor's long shadow 

The new senator provides a political profile for Democrats to come

click to enlarge Sen. David Pryor and Sen. Mark Pryor
  • Sen. David Pryor and Sen. Mark Pryor

The words always tumble out softly, the corners of every sentence gently rounded off, as if Mark Pryor were trying not to disturb the peaceful sleep of a child perhaps over there behind the desk or as if there is something somehow confidential about the ordinary thoughts he is sharing with you. Like almost everything else about him, the speech of the junior United States senator from Arkansas wants to dispel the notion that he is, at least fleetingly, a national hero for the Democratic Party and a figure who is likely to cast a very long shadow over the politics of his state.

Meek, soft-spoken, reticent, shy, deliberate, cautious, absence of ego and bluster - these are not terms that ordinarily fit a politician, especially one who has won four decisive elections in 12 years and at the age of 39 reached a forum reserved for the most charismatic politicians in the country.

But Mark Lunsford Pryor bucked a national Republican tide in 2002, defeating a fairly accomplished but admittedly damaged senator, Tim Hutchinson, by the healthy margin of 8 percent. He did it despite the largest surge of money into a single campaign since the fourth and losing Winthrop Rockefeller campaign for governor in 1970 and a literal invasion by Republican big shots pleading for his defeat, from the popular president and vice president to cabinet members, senators and other conservative luminaries from Rudy Giuliani to Charlton Heston. Pryor said no thanks to all the sachems of his own party who wanted to come lend a hand, including the former president from Arkansas, that he would handle the job all by himself. He spurned all of them, that is, except his old dad, who proved to be quite enough. There is some evidence, too, that Pryor proved to be an asset to other Arkansas Democrats, including the gritty Jimmie Lou Fisher, who lost a closer race for governor. 2002.

It was the first year since the early 1970s that the Arkansas Republican Party, still the most moribund in America, suffered a net setback in its glacial drive for parity, and Democrats have to accord Mark Pryor quite a bit of the credit.

It was all enough to make Pryor the Arkansas Times' Arkansan of the Year.

Although he dominated the political news of the state in 2002 and you have a strong hunch that he will be a United States senator for as long as he wants to be and as long as his health permits, Mark Pryor still has not quite dispelled all the doubts that have followed him since his naïve beginnings in the state House of Representatives, doubts about his political ability, his gravity. But a remarkable, almost perfectly run campaign for the Senate has gone a long way, although some still prefer to credit someone else: national strategists, a trio of young pals who helped steer the campaign, or maybe the elder Pryor, who worked so hard behind the scenes.

The conventional wisdom last year was that Hutchinson, the pious family candidate, had beaten himself by his office tryst with an aide, divorce and remarriage and that people were apt to vote for Pryor only because they loved his father or maybe even thought it was his father who was running yet again. David H. Pryor gave up the Senate seat after 18 years in 1996, paving the way for Congressman Hutchinson to go to the Senate for a term.

Both theories sell Sen. Pryor short. The Pryor name and his father's standing got him an early commitment from the national party and deterred opposition in the primaries, and David Pryor helped raise a creditable amount of money, but in the end it was Mark Pryor who bested Hutchinson, starting with the first and critical debate, when he handled himself not heroically but creditably.



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