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The return of Herb Rule 

A civil sort of warhorse.

click to enlarge Herb Rule image

A bunch of people are grateful to Herb Rule for giving them someone to vote for in the Second Congressional District race, and not just any someone, but a lion of the Little Rock liberal community, an older Vic Snyder, someone whose contrast with the incumbent, U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, couldn't be sharper. Until Rule's last-minute filing, it appeared Griffin would be unopposed. Now Rule is the de facto Democratic nominee, and will face Griffin in the November general election.

There's also a bunch of people, some of them members of the first group too, who believe that Rule doesn't have a chance of winning. He emphatically denies that his candidacy is only a gesture. He's no stalking horse, he says. "I'm a warhorse, and I've got the scars and bruises to prove it." Does he think he can win? "Absolutely."

He's won elections before. But it was a long time ago.

In 1966, Rule was one of several liberal-to-moderate newcomers elected to a conservative state legislature. It was the first election after the U.S. Supreme Court's "one man, one vote" ruling, which required that legislative districts be nearly equal in population. Before then, county lines were as important as people, or more so. Each of the 75 counties, no matter how small, was guaranteed at least one seat in the Arkansas House of Representatives. Perry was the smallest county at the time, and Perry's representative, Paul Van Dalsem, was among the acknowledged bosses of the legislature, a pillar of what came to be called the Old Guard, known among other things for its support of a segregationist governor, Orval Faubus.

Van Dalsem made a lot of people mad, and he particularly enraged female political activists when he said that in Perry County, such would-be troublemakers were kept barefoot and pregnant. The women couldn't get at him in Perry County, but the Supreme Court decision forced him to run in Pulaski too. Rule, then a young lawyer who'd never held public office, ran against him.

It was a different kind of politics for Van Dalsem. A reporter remembers attending a political rally at which labor-union members heckled Van Dalsem loudly. He didn't handle it well. (Rule says he was heckled at the same rally, called a "nigger-lover" among other things. His reputation had preceded him.)

In the 1967 legislative session, nearly half the House members were freshmen. The legislature was still overwhelmingly Democratic, but in many cases, it was a different kind of Democrat. The Old Guard was badly shaken. Besides redistricting, it had suffered a serious blow in the election of Winthrop Rockefeller as governor. Rockefeller was a liberal Republican. There were such things in 1967.

Rule's two terms in the legislature coincided with Rockefeller's two terms as governor. Rockefeller was defeated by Dale Bumpers when he tried for a third term. Rule didn't run for a third term, deciding instead "to try to feed my family and learn how to practice law."

Those two legislative sessions were lively, and Rule remembers bruising encounters with Old Guardsmen like Bill Thompson, John Bethell and John Miller. But these were generally like grammar-school fights, he says. The next day, you were over it. "Most politicans are amiable, outgoing people." (Rockefeller was an exception to that rule. Politics was hard for him.)

Rule was back in the public arena as a member of the Little Rock School Board in 1976-82. The school board had contentious negotiations with the Little Rock Classroom Teachers Association, he says, but the board, the teachers and the staff treated each other respectfully.

Why is he running for Congress at the age of 74, after 30 years away from elective office? He thought he could improve the dialogue, reduce the fear, and promote a more civil discourse, he says.

"One of the great problems we have is how to finance Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. So many people in the Second District rely on them. But they're under constant attack, particularly from the Republican side of Congress. We've got to make them fiscally sound, and stop using them as a club over people's heads."

The controversy over a new veterans center on Main Street was also a "precipitating factor" in Rule's decision to run. Griffin at one time opposed the center, as does Mayor Mark Stodola. More recently, Griffin's tried to duck and draw away from the controversy.

"We need to honor those who served," Rule says. "This could be resolved to everyone's benefit. There's a lot of room to talk civilly. But the city hasn't facilitated that at all." He says city government is now considering an ordinance that would not only endanger the veterans center, but possibly Stewpot as well. Stewpot is a downtown soup kitchen that has been in operation, for years. Rule, one of the founders, does volunteer work there.

The state Democratic Party encouraged him to run for Congress, and has offered help, Rule says. No doubt. It would have been embarrassing if the party didn't even field a candidate for a congressional seat it held for 14 years before Griffin was elected in 2010.

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