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The redistricting plan that the legislature approved in the 1981 session took Searcy out of Walmsley's district and put it in a district with Stuttgart. Searcy was bigger than Stuttgart too, but Stuttgart had an incumbent senator, Bill Hargrove, who'd said he would seek election in the new district. For months, Beebe — now a Senate candidate, to no one's surprise — ran for the seat as if he had an opponent. Eventually Hargrove withdrew, and Beebe was elected without opposition. He would be re-elected several times, and then be elected attorney general, all without opposition, which says quite a lot about the impression Beebe makes on people, and the supporters he attracts. He wouldn't draw an opponent until the 2006 governor's race, when Asa Hutchinson confronted him.
When Beebe ran in 2006, some followers of politics were skeptical of him because he wasn't associated with any particular cause. “What is he for?” they asked. He was known as a fixer, a man who could arrange a compromise on anything, who'd accept the lesser of two evils. He was friendly — too friendly, some said — with special interests. As governor, he hired a former poultry industry lobbyist as his chief of staff. Before he was a lobbyist, Morril Harriman of Van Buren had been Beebe's closest friend and ally in the Senate. Legislatively, the two were virtually inseparable.
Some of the skeptics were persuaded by Beebe's enthusiastic support from Senate colleagues who were known for passion and principle. People like Jodie Mahony of El Dorado, a fighter for public education, and Jay Bradford of Pine Bluff, whose progressive views made you wonder how an insurance salesman came to hold them. Bradford, a proponent of mental health programs among other causes, has been appointed by Beebe as director of behavioral health services at the state Department of Human Services (DHS). Mahony has worked on Beebe's gubernatorial staff.
“He and I started in the Senate together in 1983,” Bradford says. “It didn't take me long to realize I wanted to be on his team, because he was gonna be a real factor.” He was intelligent, obviously, and he understood the importance of pleasing the senior senators who could be helpful. Sen. Knox Nelson of Pine Bluff was a power in the Senate at the time. Nelson quickly acknowledged Beebe as a comer. Despite winning Nelson's regard, Beebe was a leader in a group of young senators who would force a change in Senate procedures. The old rules allowed powerful members like Nelson and Max Howell of Jacksonville to chair two or three committees apiece. The new rules permitted only one chairmanship per senator.
One day during Beebe's first term, a reporter happened to be standing nearby when Bill Moore, a longtime senator from El Dorado, approached Beebe and told him that he was the only one of the newcomers who observed the old Senate niceties — on winning recognition to speak, and other such matters. Beebe said something like “Aw shucks,” and the reporter thought, “He doesn't miss many tricks.”
Another trick he didn't miss was that of being accessible to the press. Many older senators were wary of reporters. Beebe (and Harriman) talked to them, with as much candor as could reasonably be expected. They answered reporters' phone calls, and addressed them by their first names.
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