LITTLE ROCK — Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV is Arkansas’ longest serving legislator. When his final term ends in early 2015 after 16 years, colleagues say the General Assembly will lose not only a wealth of institutional knowledge but also a guide post and true gentleman.
The Democrat from Pine Bluff has built a reputation for being forthright and nurturing during 14 years in the General Assembly.
“He’s really good about making people feel the best about themselves and then at the same time getting them set on the right road,” said Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, who served with Wilkins in the Senate. “He’s the dean of that around here.”
Wilkins, 59, is what is known as a legacy — both of his parents and an uncle served in the Legislature before him.
“I kind of grew up around (politics and government),” but did not consider a career in politics as his destiny, Wilkins said last week during an interview with the Arkansas News Bureau.
“I have enjoyed it, but to be honest with you, I wasn’t looking at … becoming a legislator one day,” he said. “Some people think, I’ve had people say to me, ‘wow, the Wilkins family really has the legacy.’ I am appreciative of that, but from my standpoint, it only takes on real meaning if the legacy is used to help others.”
Wilkins said the highlight of his legislative career was sponsoring legislation that became Act 308 of 2009, Arkansas’ mandatory seat belt law.
Current and former colleagues in the House and Senate say his institutional knowledge and his ability to nurture and encourage are the qualities they’ll remember most.
“He has been most helpful in sharing his information. This is a difficult thing to learn … in just a few years, so he has made it easier for me to understand the rules, the budget, having been chair of (Legislative) Council and having had the experience of revenue stabilization,” said Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock.
“All of these terms are so foreign when you first get here, and he’s made it easier for us to take in and understand,” Chesterfield said. “When people take that kind of time to help new folks, I think that’s pretty special.”
Former Sen. Kim Hendren, R-Gravette, who often had friendly verbal sparring matches with Wilkins during committee meetings, said there are few nicer people than the Pine Bluff Democrat.
“Hank has always been a gentleman in everything he has done,” Hendren said. “You could probably say he and I didn’t always agree, but he has always been the gentleman and I appreciate that in Hank.”
Asked what it felt like being the most senior member of the Legislature, Wilkins slumped his shoulders, chuckled and said, “I feel old.”
He said learning he was the longest serving legislators was a surprise.
“It wasn’t something I was looking toward. I feel blessed and grateful from the standpoint that I’ve been able to accomplish some things over the years,” he said.
Wilkins was first elected to the state House in 1998, to the same seat his father, Henry Wilkins III, held from 1973 until his death in 1991. His mother, Josetta Wilkins, replaced her husband in a special election and served in the House until 1998, when her son was elected to the seat.
Hank Wilkins served one two-year term in the House before running in 2000 for the state Senate seat vacated by his uncle, Jean Edwards of Pine Bluff, who had held the seat for 10 years.
Of historical note, Wilkins’ mother and uncle were the first brother-sister team to ever serve in the Arkansas Legislature at the same time.
Hank Wilkins served 10 years in the Senate before being term limited in 2010, when he was elected to a second House term. He was re-elected to a third and final two-year House term in November.
As a child, Wilkins said he remembers his father selling the poll tax to blacks in Pine Bluff.
“There were people in the African-American community that were critical of that. They said the poll tax was wrong,” he said. “My father, who was a political science professor, told them, ‘you are absolutely right, it is the wrong thing … until we can change it. We will not be able to have an impact on electoral politics if we don’t vote.’”
The poll tax was $1.
He also remembered his father fighting for his family’s right to sit on the main floor of the Sanger Theater in Pine Bluff. Prior to that, blacks were allowed to sit only in the balcony of the movie theater.
Wilkins’ aunt, Joanna Edwards, also was active in civil rights and was expelled from Arkansas AM&N College — now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff — for being affiliated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, a civil rights activist group during the 1960s. She is now an English professor at UAPB.
Hank Wilkins attended the University of Michigan after graduating high school in Pine Bluff. In Michigan, he met his future brother-in-law, Rodney Slater of Marianna, who would later serve as chairman of the Arkansas Highway Commission and U.S. Secretary of Transportation.
After earning an undergraduate degree at Michigan, Hank Wilkins attended law school at the University of Arkansas and served as pastor of St. James United Methodist Church in Fayetteville. With only one semester remaining in law school, he was accepted to the St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo., where he earned a masters of divinity degree.
He said he had known since he was a teenager that he wanted to be a pastor and realized in law school that it was his calling.
He went on to pastor churches in Kansas City, Dallas and Carrolton, Texas, before moving back to Pine Bluff in 1994 to serve as pastor of St. James United Methodist Church, where he still serves.
Another highlight of his legislative career, he said, was serving on the Senate Education Committee as the Legislature shaped its response to the Lake View decision in which the state Supreme Court declared the state’s school funding system unconstitutional.
The Legislature responded by enacting sweeping public education reforms and hundreds of millions of dollars in new taxes to pay for them.
“It took us some time to do what we did, but the money, the restructuring of funds for education k-12, needed to happen,” Wilkins said. “During the same period we also put monies into preschool.”
Those decisions, he said, helped improve education in the state.
“I’m proud to be a part of helping improve education,” he said. “I really think that when today, you know how folks brag that Arkansas has come a long way, I think it was from that decision, the Lake View decision, which forced us to do some things that we are now reaping the benefits.”
Another of his accomplishments, he said, was legislation creating state racial profiling task force, racial profiling hotline at the attorney general’s office and requirements that law enforcement agencies across the state develop policies to prevent racial profiling.
During his legislative career, Wilkins has twice served as chairman of Legislative Council and twice as chairman of the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee. He was the first black lawmaker to serve as chairman of both panels, and the first person to serve as chairman of both committees twice.
He is the founding member of the Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus Foundation and served as its chairman. He also has served as chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus and served as assistant president pro tem of the state Senate.
“He’s just a great guy. He is the master of the lost art of disagreeing in a respectful manner,” said Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, who served briefly in the Senate with Wilkins.
“It seems that today if people disagree with you, they think you are the worst person in the world and you’re motives are bad,” Lamoureux said, adding that Wilkins “doesn’t attribute bad intentions to people. He’s just a really good guy. A quality human.”
Gov. Mike Beebe said Wilkins “is a good preacher, a good orator and states his case very eloquently.”
“I’ve always had a good relationship with him,” the governor said. “He is forthright and somebody that is committed to looking at all the facts.”