The Class of '91 

With Knox Nelson ousted and Max Howell doddering, a new era dawns in State Senate

Knox Nelson will be home in Pine Bluff, tending the farm and his oil "bidness," as he always put it, when the Arkansas state legislature convenes later this month. Not since 1957 has the legislature met without his formidable presence.

Everyone agrees that things won't be the same at the Capitol without him. Nearly everyone adds, with all due respect, that things will be better.

That includes legislators like Senator Mike Beebe of Searcy, who professes his admiration of Nelson, but goes on to acknowledge that no man should ever have been able to wield the kind of power that Nelson did for the last couple of decades in the state Senate. Nelson alone controlled the disposition of proposed laws, determining the committees to which they were assigned, the time they would be brought to a vote, and whether they were voted on at all.

Max Howell of Jacksonville, who formed the other half of the Senate's longtime ruling tandem, will return to begin his 44th year. But he is nearly 80, he has lost his position as chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, and younger senators suggest he no longer bothers them. "Max is finished," claims one, though not for attribution, which suggests that as the Senate's senior member, even an old, toothless, and Knox-less Max is not to be trifled with unnecessarily.

Still, influence will now be more diversified in the Senate, and younger, ambitious members will have the chance to carve their own niches. If nothing else, it will look better to schoolkids in the galleries if there is some sort of published agenda lending a semblance of openness to the proceedings, as there never was during the Nelson era.

Indeed, more openness may have been the message the voters were sending in Arkansas in the 1990 mid-term elections. Nelson was waxed by another incumbent, Jay Bradford, in a primary forced by court-ordered redistricting. Bradford is the nearest thing to a liberal in the Senate, not counting a couple of incoming members from Little Rock, Vic Snyder and John Pagan. Bradford has supported higher taxes, school health clinics, and tougher ethics and accountability laws. He once made a speech to the Pine Bluff Rotary Club attacking Wal-Mart for using temporary employees and not providing benefits, such as health insurance, and lived to tell about it. He was co-chairman of the campaign ethics law approved overwhelmingly by the voters in November. In 1988 he co-sponsored legislation for a stricter code of ethics for legislators and passed by public initiative.

Nelson epitomized the opposite. Not only did he rule the Senate with an iron fist, he represented the highway contractors' association as executive director-consultant—paid lobbyist, in other words—a conflict of interest that remains legal in Arkansas despite all the new ethics laws.

Nelson is not the only departing figure. One-fifth of the Senate, seven of the 35 members, will not be returning. Some quit. Some, like Paul Benham of Marianna, were squeezed out by court-ordered redistricting to increase the chances of black representation. The Senate, which until this year had one black member, will now have three blacks. The House of Representatives will have four more blacks than it had last year.

Four senators met with defeat: Nelson, Benham, Kent Ingram of West Memphis, and Doug Brandon of Little Rock. They share few characteristics, but there are hints of a pattern. Nelson, Benham, and Ingram represented the Old South style of eastern Arkansas politics; they were white bosses. Nelson, Ingram, and Brandon formed a third of the nine-man coalition that refused in 1989 to go along with Governor Bill Clinton's income tax reform bill. Since the state Constitution provides that income taxes can't be raised without a three-fourths majority vote, those nine stopped the governor's tax-for-education program in its tracks.

Speaking of...

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by John Brummett

  • Obstruction is the preferred conservatism

    Is there greater conservative virtue in opposing federal health reform, period, or in saying it ought to be implemented locally instead of from Washington in the event we are unavoidably laden with it?
    • Oct 5, 2011
  • A fate not quite as bad as prison for Lu Hardin

    There is no crime in being overly and transparently solicitous for the purposes of aggrandizement and personal political advancement. That's simply acute neediness, a common and benign human frailty.
    • Sep 28, 2011
  • Can we talk? Can we get anywhere?

    Dialogue is good. It would be even better if someone would venture off script every once in a while.
    • Sep 21, 2011
  • More »

Most Shared

  • Bill to regulate dog breeders draws opposition inside chamber from industry rep

    A fight could be brewing over regulation of puppy mills, with legislation planned to better protect dogs and opposition already underway from a state representative who makes a living working with commercial dog breeders.
  • Arkansas's new anti-gay law forgets history

    It turns back the clock on civil rights.
  • The hart

    It is hard for a straight person, The Observer included, to imagine what it would be like to be born gay — to be shipwrecked here on this space-going clod, where nearly every textbook, novel, film and television show, nearly every blaring screen or billboard or magazine ad, reinforces the idea that "normal" means "heterosexual."
  • Presbytery of Arkansas opposes bills aimed at gay discrimination

    The Presbytery of Arkansas, the governing body for Presbyterian churches in the northern two-thirds of Arkansas, met Saturday at Clarksville and adopted a resolution urging Gov. Asa Hutchinson to veto SB 202, which is aimed at preventing local government from passing anti-discrimination laws to protect gay people. The Presbytery also expressed its opposition to a pending House bill that, in the name of "conscience," would protect those who discriminate against gay people.
  • Death penalty repeal clears Senate Committee

    The Senate Judiciary Committee has endorsed Sen. David Burnett's bill to repeal the death penalty.

Latest in Cover Stories

Event Calendar

« »

February

S M T W T F S
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28

Most Viewed

  • Arkansas's new anti-gay law forgets history

    It turns back the clock on civil rights.
  • The hart

    It is hard for a straight person, The Observer included, to imagine what it would be like to be born gay — to be shipwrecked here on this space-going clod, where nearly every textbook, novel, film and television show, nearly every blaring screen or billboard or magazine ad, reinforces the idea that "normal" means "heterosexual."
  • Arts centered where?

    Desire for a new building could uproot Little Rock's longtime cultural gem and send it across the river.
  • Home at last

    Mourners stand over the casket of Corporal C.G. Bolden of Clinton during a Feb. 21 memorial service. Bolden was taken prisoner while fighting in Korea in January 1951 and died in a P.O.W. camp four months later. His remains were returned to the U.S. by the North Korean government in the 1990s, and were identified through DNA testing in December.
  • Walmart wage hike, by the numbers

    Also, fluoride rides again, Hutchinson's plan for prisons, a puppy mill, a safe place for Craigslist transactions, LRSD legal battle and more.

Most Recent Comments

 

© 2015 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation