Ousting a legislator 

The senators felt the heat in 1974.

click to enlarge WALMSLEY: Voted right.
  • WALMSLEY: Voted right.

Public opinion is rather inflamed against former state Rep. Dwayne Dobbins of North Little Rock. There's talk of denying him entrance to the House next year, or of throwing him out once he's in. Meanwhile, the Senate is pondering an election dispute that could conceivably result in a senator's being unseated. But the public today is nowhere nearly as excited as it was the last time a state legislator was expelled by his colleagues.

The year was 1974; the legislator was state Sen. Guy H. (Mutt) Jones of Conway. Jones had been convicted of federal income tax evasion, a felony, and the conviction touched off an outcry that he be expelled from the Senate. The Senate voted the first time on July 12. Before voting on the expulsion motion itself, the senators voted on whether to require a two-thirds majority or a simple majority for expulsion. The two-thirds requirement was adopted, and some observers felt that vote assured Jones' continued presence in the Senate. Sure enough, the ensuing motion to expel failed, 21 for to 12 against, with 24 votes required for expulsion. The senators then went home, most of them believing, probably, that the Jones question had been settled. They found that their constituents believed otherwise.

Bill Walmsley, who'd voted against Jones and was prominent in the expulsion faction, was back in his Batesville law office when he got a telephone call from an agitated Sen. Olen Hendrix of Prescott. Hendrix, who'd voted for Jones, said the Senate would have to vote again. People were withdrawing money from his bank, he said, people who'd banked there for years. Walmsley was a young activist at the time. Hendrix was a senior member, and one of a fairly small group that generally dominated the Senate.

Walmsley got another call, this one from Sen. Paul Benham of Helena. The message was the same. Benham, who'd abstained on the first Jones vote, said that people were canceling their insurance policies with his firm.

Walmsley eventually served 12 years in the Senate, 1971-82. No other single issue provoked nearly as much comment as the Jones case. “I must have received 3,000 or 4,000 letters,” he says. “They came from all over the state — 90 percent of them were from people who didn't live in my district. They were spontaneous, they weren't form letters, and they all said in essence ‘You're doing the right thing. Keep it up.' I've never seen an issue that was so one-sided. I've never been as right as I was on that one.”

The Senate went back in session and called the roll again. This time the vote was 25 for expulsion, 6 against, 1 present and 3 absent. Four senators, including Hendrix, had switched their votes from “no” to “aye.” Benham had switched from “abstain” to “aye.” Jones was one of the absentees, suggesting that he knew what was coming. He'd been present for the previous vote.

Jones had always been a colorful, combative, controversial figure, a 5'4” warrior in cowboy boots. He was the most powerful orator in the Senate. His was an old-fashioned sort of oratory, though, and many people considered him an old-fashioned politician, a sort that Arkansas no longer needed, or could afford. He was part of a machine that controlled politics in Faulkner, Conway and Perry counties, and during the Winthrop Rockefeller years, Jones came to symbolize the opposition to the progressive Republican governor. By 1974, another progressive, Dale Bumpers, was governor, and he and Jones weren't close either, although both were Democrats. Walmsley says that to some extent, the Jones case pitted young senators seeking change, substantive and procedural, against old-guard legislators happy with things as they were.

The common people are usually unsympathetic to the mighty who fall. That Jones had been convicted of income tax evasion was particularly galling to Arkansans. People who quietly pay their taxes are irked when an elected official, who probably makes more money than they do, is caught cheating on his. The state press was strongly anti-Jones too.

(Unlike Jones, Dobbins was not a well-known political figure before he pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of fondling a 17-year-old girl. He resigned his House seat as part of a plea bargain. His wife, Sharon, was elected to succeed him, and it was widely believed that she'd seek re-election this year. But just before the deadline, Dwayne Dobbins filed instead, leaving himself unopposed, unless somebody runs as a write-in candidate. His own party, Democratic, has disavowed him and offered to return his filing fee.)

Walmsley says he took no personal pleasure in Jones' downfall. Early in Walmsley's Senate career, he opposed a congressional redistricting plan that moved his home county, Independence, from the Second Congressional District to the First, and moved Arkansas County from the First District to the Second. Walmsley argued that Independence was a mostly-manufacturing county, having much in common with the other counties of the Second District, while Arkansas County fit perfectly with the farm counties of the First District. Bill Alexander, then the U.S. representative for the First District, supported the redistricting plan. Walmsley asked him why. According to Walmsley, Alexander said, “I need some more white voters.” He got them, but Jones was one of about nine senators who backed Walmsley's position. “I always felt a debt of gratitude for that,” Walmsley says.

Jones and most of the senators who voted on his ouster are dead now. Walmsley is still around and so is another young reformer of those days, Nick Wilson of Pocahontas. Wilson too voted to expel Jones. A quarter of a century later, Senator Wilson was convicted of fraud and racketeering. He avoided expulsion by resigning.



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