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.


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