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The importance of being Mark 

click to enlarge Mark Pryor and family
  • Mark Pryor and family

After a reporter's third or fourth question in the same vein, and a particularly rude question at that ("People say you're not as personable as your father . . . "), Mark Pryor begins to show weariness.

"Maybe I'm not as personable as my father," he says. "Your generation has to remember that I'm  my dad. When I ran for the legislature, people expected me to be David Pryor. I'm proud of him. I'm proud that Arkansas had two strong senators for years, my father and Dale Bumpers. But I'm not David Pryor, I'm Mark Pryor."

It's Attorney General Mark Pryor who's running for the Senate now, virtually certain to be the Democratic nominee opposing the virtually certain Republican nominee, Sen. Tim Hutchinson, in the general election next year. The race will draw more out-of-state attention and out-of-state money than is customary for Arkansas. With the Senate evenly divided, both parties covet the seat, and both think it's winnable. It had always belonged to Democrats, including David Pryor, until Hutchinson arrived in 1997, after the elder Pryor retired from politics and Hutchinson defeated the Democratic nominee to succeed him. Mark Pryor hopes to make Hutchinson a one-term senator. Early polls suggest he has a fighting chance.

One reason Hutchinson is considered more vulnerable than the average incumbent is a spot of scandal in his private life. A year or so after he took office, rumors began to circulate that the senator and his wife had grown apart, while he and a younger woman, a staff member, were growing together. The Hutchinsons were divorced in 1999. A year later he married his present wife, who had left his staff by then. Some thought he wouldn't seek re-election, but he's running, having 'fessed up and apologized, more or less. Embarrassing for any politician, this sort of thing is even more so for a Bob Jones U. grad and former radio preacher who has always catered to the Religious Right.

Pryor quickly disposes of the obligatory question about Hutchinson's divorce and remarriage. "I don't know anything about it, I don't want to know anything about it, we're not going to talk about it. It's not an issue for this campaign at all." That won't stop others from talking, of course. Pryor's own private life, which includes two small children, son Adams and daughter Porter, and one wife, Jill, is without blemish so far as is known. The family attends Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, a church usually associated with the Religious Right. Many have noted that this race will be Hutchinson's first in which he can't run as the "family values" candidate.

If not Hutchinson hanky-panky, what issues will Pryor be talking about? This early, it's hard to say, but "some of them will be health care, economic policy, taxes, the military, and how each issue affects Arkansas. A Senate race is not like a state race. It could be any issue around the world. You don't know what people will be focused on." (How true. Pryor was interviewed before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.)

Everyone believes that Pryor is more liberal than the far-right Hutchinson. Will he confirm?

"I don't want to talk about him. But the National Journal rated him the most conservative senator. He voted with his party 95 percent of the time. Jesse Helms is more liberal than he is. But I don't like to talk about 'liberal' and 'conservative,' either. I want to do what's best for Arkansas."

Hutchinson has a big lead in the early fund-raising. It's likely Pryor will reduce the lead, but never quite catch up. Democrats seldom do, unless they're incumbents.

"In the last election cycle, the tobacco companies, the oil companies and the pharmaceutical companies heavily funded Republican candidates," Pryor said. "They may throw a few bones to Democrats occasionally, but basically I anticipate that the terrible trio will support Republicans again." As attorney general, Pryor participated in a major lawsuit against tobacco companies that produced millions of dollars for state governments, including Arkansas's. He inherited the suit from his predecessor, Winston Bryant.

"I don't think we'll be able to out-spend him," Pryor said. "I think we'll be able to out-work him. I've never been in a campaign like this. Even in northwest Arkansas, which is supposed to be a Republican stronghold, people are coming out of the woodwork to help. I've always had to go out and look for volunteers. In this race, people are walking up and offering their support."

Mark Pryor, 38, is the middle of David and Barbara Pryor's three sons, and the only politician of the group. He was born in Fayetteville, while his father was a law student and member of the Arkansas House of Representatives. When Mark was 3, David was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the family moved to Washington. In 1972, when Mark was in the fourth grade, David ran for the Senate against the incumbent, John McClellan, and suffered his only political defeat. The Pryors moved to Little Rock. Two years later, Pryor was elected governor. In 1978, when Mark was in the 10thgrade, his father was elected senator, and the family moved back to Washington. He finished high school in Bethesda, Md., then attended the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where he earned a BA in history and a law degree.

Growing up in a political family, did he plan a political career himself? "When I was a kid, I thought I'd go into politics. Then in college, I sort of withdrew. I realized that my identity was wrapped up in politics. I needed to find out who I was, what kind of life I wanted. I walked away from it — but I took a semester off to help Dad get re-elected in 1984." This is certainly not David Pryor talking. The elder Pryor started running for office in grade school, and one can't imagine him ever agonizing over who he was or what he wanted. The difference may be generational as well as individual.

When Mark did enter politics himself, after practicing law for a couple of years, it was almost by indirection. "I thought I'd be active in Dad's re-election campaign in 1990, but he was unopposed. I was braced for political activity, and a seat opened up in the [state] House of Representatives when Gloria Cabe didn't seek re-election. I ran and won. I served two terms. I learned a lot about government. I learned a lot about the state. Tim was in the House my first term. We had a good relationship. Jeremy [Tim Hutchinson's son] is my representative now."

Pryor's two terms in the legislature were not remarkable. Indeed, they were disappointing to some. He seemed to be well liked, but he was not one of the more active or influential legislators, and such bills as he sponsored or co-sponsored were comparatively minor matters of little general interest — cleaning up the legal language in old statutes, that sort of thing. In one of its biennial assessments of legislators, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette put Pryor in its dreaded "furniture" category, outraging some of Pryor's friends.

"I thought that was unfair," Pryor said. "I passed 30 pieces of legislation that session. I always thought I got punished because I wasn't a showboat, I didn't toot my own horn, I didn't cultivate the press." That's not just loser talk. Insufficient cultivation of the press is often a factor in these highly subjective ratings.

A couple of veteran Democratic legislators who served in the House with Pryor thought the "furniture" label was probably unfair, although one remembered Pryor as being "kind of disengaged." Both said his name had inspired high expectations. To make one more odious comparison, David Pryor was a high-profile member of the Arkansas House, one of a small group of progressives called "the Young Turks" who opposed the Orval Faubus administration.

Mark Pryor has impressed more as attorney general than he did as state representative. He ran for the job first in 1994, challenging the incumbent, Winston Bryant. Pryor was considered the conservative in that race, the business candidate, even criticizing Bryant for accepting contributions from labor unions. He was defeated soundly. He practiced law until 1998, when he ran for attorney general again. This time, he didn't have to face an incumbent. He defeated the Republican nominee, Betty Dickey.

Pryor says, and outsiders agree, that he's put together a good staff. "For the first time, we have an anti-trust lawyer on the attorney general's staff. Now we can go after pharmaceutical companies, for example, for price-fixing. We can never have as many lawyers at a Public Service Commission hearing as the utilities have, but we can have quality." He steered through the legislature a bill to protect consumers from telemarketing. Pay a $10 fee and your name is added to a "Do Not Call" list. Telemarketers who don't comply with the list are fined. The program has worked well, and is very popular.

Perhaps Pryor's finest hour was when he fought for a controversial bill to allow juries to impose heavier penalties for "hate crimes" — crimes committed because of the victim's race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or disability. The prudent political course would have been to stay away from the bill, or give it only lip service. Pryor pushed it hard, and publicly charged the Arkansas Family Council, a right-wing religious/political group, with spreading lies about the bill. The Family Council scares some politicians. The bill died in a House committee, predictably. Pryor's support for it will be used against him in the Senate race — he'll be accused of wanting "special rights" for homosexuals and other minorities.

N Now a member of the state Public Service Commission, by appointment of Gov. Mike Huckabee, Betty Dickey was a favorite of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial page, which savages Pryor and boosts Hutchinson at every opportunity. Rancor over Dickey's defeat is not the only reason.

Hussmans have hated Pryors for 40 years at least, since the days when David Pryor ran a weekly newspaper at Camden in competition with a Hussman paper (they were called Palmer papers in those days, but it's the same family), then opposed a Hussman in-law in a Fourth District congressional race. The Hussman papers, which blanket south Arkansas, blacked out news of the Pryor campaign. He won, nonetheless.

"Partly it's me, partly it's my father, partly it's the anti-Democratic Party bent that the statewide paper has," Mark Pryor said of the Democrat-Gazette's animus. "Occasionally they'll criticize a Republican, but they're forgiving of Republicans. Democrats are attacked much more often, and never forgiven." He doesn't worry about abuse from the editorial page of the state's largest paper because "There's nothing I can do about it." He adds: "I think most people don't read the editorials. People who are interested in politics do, but those people know who they're going to vote for."

"Some people think Channel 7 is biased," Pryor said. "I don't know, but I think it's unfortunate they endorsed Bush [in the 2000 presidential election]. I think they and a sister station in Pennsylvania were the only TV stations to endorse Bush. TV is different from newspapers. Anybody can start a newspaper. TV needs a license from the government."

Pryor probably is correct that the Democrat-Gazette editorial page by itself can't do him serious harm. He might be hurt if the editorial page judgments slop over into the paper's news coverage. That's something Pryor supporters and political buffs will be watching for. Essentially, it's what happened to Al Gore in the presidential race. To a startling degree, partisan, derogatory allegations about Gore were accepted and repeated by reporters supposedly providing "straight" news coverage. The Al Gore that his enemies saw became the Al Gore that was presented to the American people. Gore still got more votes than Bush, which suggests that voters are smarter than reporters.

N It's hard to imagine that someone who loves politics as much as David Pryor does, and who is so good at it, would not play a prominent part in his son's campaign for the father's old Senate seat. But such will be the case, according to Mark Pryor. "He's at Harvard this school year, as director of the Institute of Politics in the JFK School of Government. He'll be there through June. So he and Mother will be tied up most of the time. I guess that means I'll have to do most of it on my own." It may not have been planned that way, but Mark Pryor may have wanted a little distance between him and his father in the early and middle stages of the campaign, the better to make the point that the candidate is Mark, not David.

David Pryor is not entirely inactive, even while living in Massachusetts. He attended a recent fund-raiser for Mark Pryor hosted in Boston by Sen. Ted Kennedy, JFK's brother and a Democrat that Republicans love to rail against. They'll try to use that Kennedy connection against Mark Pryor, as they will the Democrat-Gazette's "furniture" assessment, and Pryor's support for the hate crimes bill, and the charge they've already made that the son is riding on the father's reputation.

"Everything will be used against me," Pryor said. "The national Republican Party will do everything in its power to win this race. That's one reason it was such a hard decision for Jill and me. The battering they gave Mike Ross is one-quarter of what I'll get." U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, a Democrat, won his Fourth District seat last year by defeating the incumbent, Jay Dickey, a Republican.

In the end, will the family name help or hurt? "Both candidates have family names," Pryor said. (Tim Hutchinson's brother, Asa, was U.S. representative for the Third District until he accepted an appointment to head the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, and, as noted, Tim's son, Jeremy, is a member of the Arkansas House of Representatives.) My guess is it'll be a washout. It'll help us both a little, and hurt us both a little." Possibly. But Pryor is still the bigger name, and the help and hurt might be proportional.

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