GRADY — In its 58th year, the Grady Lions Club Catfish Supper continues to attract people from throughout Southeast Arkansas, as well as a throng of political candidates, and this year was no different.
Always held on the third Thursday in August, the event also traditionally kicks off the campaign season.
“This is a great event,” Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said when he arrived at Grady just before 5:30 p.m Thursday. “It’s just fun to see not just the whole community roll out but really people from all around the state come here. It’s for a special cause and I know this whole community pitches in to make this a big success every year.”
The annual event is held at the Ned Hardin Pecan Grove.
Randy Hardin, president of the Grady Lion’s Club, said the catfish supper began when a group of farmers in Grady started the Lions Club and were looking for a project to serve as a fundraiser.
“By August the crops were laid by and it was a good time to do something,” he said. “There was this piece of farm machinery called a flame cultivator that was used to de-weed cotton so they took the burners from that, got some wash tubs, went to Clarendon and bought some White River catfish and that’s how it started.
“Of course back then there were 10 farmers to every one there is now and every framer brought all their help to put on a fish fry,” Hardin said.
He said the club switched to grain-fed, farm-raised catfish in the 1970s.
As to the annual event kicking off the campaign season, Hardin said “in an off-year, we get fewer politicians but during an election year, there are a lot of politicians who show up.”
Questioned about the fact that he is the sole remaining Democrat among Arkansas’ delegation on Capitol Hill, Pryor agreed that this year there is a target on his back.
“Yeah, there is this year, and that’s the way politics is sometimes,” he said. “It ebbs and flows but we’re excited about the campaign. I look forward to talking to people about what I’ve been doing in Washington the last 10 years. I’m not running from my record. I know that not every single person in this state agrees with every single vote I’ve made but I look forward to talking about that. I look forward to making my case on why I would like to have another six years.
“You know, one of the things that we really need in Washington is, we need problem-solvers and bridge-builders,” Pryor said. “People who will work with the other side and work with whoever is up there. Even if you don’t agree with them you can still work with them to try and move the country forward. I’m excited and look forward to the race. We’re ready.”
Asked what he views as the major issues in the race, Pryor said he thinks “one of the biggest issues is going to be what kind of senator Arkansas wants. Do they want a senator who listens and pays attention to the details here in Arkansas and tries to get things done for the state but also works with both sides and everybody in Washington to try and get things done for the state and for the nation, or do they want one who has really bought into the red-versus-blue politics up there and ‘it’s either my way or the highway.’ “
Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, who represents Arkansas’ 4th District, is challenging Pryor for his Senate seat.
“You know, Arkansas is going to have a very clear choice in 2014, and there’s quite a contrast between my opponent and me and like I said, I look forward to laying that contrast out and let the voters vote how they may but I feel great about it and I get very good response when I go around the state,” Pryor said.
Among other candidates who showed up for Thursday’s fish fry was Republican attorney general candidate Leslie Rutledge, who is making her first bid for elective office.
“It’s my first time on the ballot but I’ve been around politics all my life,” she said.
A former deputy prosecutor in Lonoke County and an attorney for the Arkansas Department of Human Services, Rutledge said she is running for the office to “protect and defend the state,” and would “fight back” against some federal mandates.
Rutledge said crime also will be an issue in the campaign, as will changes in the parole system.
“If a person is convicted of a crime, they’re going to go to the penitentiary and if they get out and commit another crime, they’re going to go back,” she said.
Ken Ferguson of Pine Bluff, who is running as a Democrat for House District 16, brought a number of supporters to enjoy the catfish, the Cummins Band, and the opportunity to shake hands.
“I’ve been in public service my entire life,” said Ferguson, who said he first considered running for the seat three years ago.
Ferguson said he is focusing his campaign on education and economic development.
“They go hand in hand, “Ferguson said.
Jane Buchan, the immediate past president of the Grady Lions Club and current secretary-treasurer, said funds raised from the fish fry are used for a variety of programs.
“A portion goes to the International Club which focuses on vision problems but they have also expanded and are now very involved in disaster relief,” she said. “Locally, we try to do whatever we can. We put trees in the city park and helped pay for the Christmas tree at City Hall. We support the community center and this year we’re supporting three college scholarships.”
Buchan said the Arkansas Department of Correction has been invaluable to the Lions Club each year.
“All of the setting-up is done by prison trustees,” she said. “They’ve been doing it for a long time.”