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Many Little Rockers will remember Betty White, and fondly in most cases. She and her companion, Elton, were once Little Rock’s best-known street people — the only ones widely known by name, in fact. An interracial and intergenerational couple, they bicycled all over town, Betty in her majorette suit, Elton preferring sombreros and serapes, as we recall. They wrote and performed songs; in Betty’s case, even wrote letters to the editor.
What most people won’t remember about Betty White is that she ran for governor. That was in 1986. A write-in candidate, she received 109 votes, falling short of election.
Write-in candidates (those whose names don’t appear on the ballot) usually run about that well. Independent and third-party candidates have done a little better. Rod Bryan and Jim Lendall are hardly the first of these to seek the governor’s office, but they’ll receive little encouragement from studying those who went before
The Socialist Party used to field a candidate regularly. Possibly the last was J. Russell Butler, who ran in 1936 and received 733 votes, compared to 156,852 for the winner, Democrat Carl E. Bailey. Out-of-the-mainstream candidates were plentiful in 1920, when the Republican Party split into two racially exclusive factions, the Lily Whites and the Black and Tans. Thomas C. McRae, the Democrat, won with 123,604 votes. Wallace Townsend, the Lily White Republican, had 46,339; the Black and Tan champion, J. H. Blount, 15,627; the Socialist candidate, Sam Busler, 4,543.
The most serious third-party candidate in recent years (recent from a historian’s viewpoint, that is) was Walter L. Carruth of Lexa (Phillips County). He received 36,132 votes in 1970, running as the candidate of the American Party, the segregationist party led by former Alabama governor George C. Wallace. Dale Bumpers, a Democrat, was elected in 1970, with 375,648 votes. The Republican nominee and incumbent, Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, received 197,418.
Tom Dillard, an authority on Arkansas history as well as the head of special collections for the University of Arkansas Libraries, says that the only time a third-party candidate might have actually won the governorship was in 1888. The Democrat, James Philip Eagle, was declared the winner, but the Union-Labor candidate, C.M. Norwood, probably received the most votes, Dillard says.
“But the vote was so contested that no one knows how it actually went. The reigning Democrats took care of this threat by disfranchising blacks and poor whites, and Democratic hegemony was not seriously challenged again until 1966, when Rockefeller won.”