House District 35 stretches from the northern part of Little Rock out past Pinnacle Mountain. Like at least a third of the state’s House seats, it will have no incumbent in next year’s elections. It would not be worth singling out except for this: Its announced Republican candidate is French Hill, one of the state’s top-tier business figures.
There are no current legislators who fit that description. In fact, there usually aren’t.
Hill’s name may have only four letters, but it’s a big one in Arkansas business and political circles. He isn’t on the Walton-Dillard-Stephens level, but he is in their company. He founded Delta Trust and Bank in 1999, which has grown to 11 locations in Central, southeast and Northwest Arkansas.
Earlier, he served as the first President Bush’s deputy assistant secretary of the treasury and on the White House staff, and he has long been active in the Republican Party.
“My first volunteer job in politics was to ride my bike in neighborhoods in Little Rock when Win Rockefeller ran for governor in 1966,” he told me.
This is not an endorsement of Hill, nor is it a criticism. It’s simply stating a fact: The state’s top-tier business leaders — people like Hill — rarely run for the state Legislature.
Instead, it is a body occupied by middle and upper-middle class Arkansans. The 135 members are a diverse collection of tradesmen, including small-town lawyers, insurance and financial services salesmen, and people connected to agriculture. I count 18 current or former educators. There are a couple of auctioneers.
Many legislators are too young to have gotten very rich and powerful elsewhere. In fact, a number of legislative leaders are in their 30s. A few legislators are in their 20s.
It’s not surprising that the state’s top business leaders don’t usually run for the Legislature — the notable exception being Joe Ford, founder of Alltel, who served in the state Senate from 1967 until 1982. Pay is low, and while it’s a “part-time” job, expectations are high.
A leading legislator gets his name in the newspaper but doesn’t earn much social status. Serving in the Legislature can be a stepping stone to higher positions, as it was for Gov. Mike Beebe and U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor. But for many of the state’s business elite, those jobs would be a step down.
Corporate chiefs do get involved in Arkansas politics in other ways. Witt Stephens, founder of Stephens Inc., was so influential that he was known as “the kingmaker.” Madison Murphy of Murphy Oil served as one of the state’s five highway commissioners and chaired the Murphy Commission, which studied ways to reform state government. Jim Walton, son of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. founder Sam Walton, is an outspoken education reformer.
Hill did not want to talk much about this subject, preferring to focus on his campaign. Of his fellow business leaders who don’t run for the Legislature, he said, “They’re just missing out on a great opportunity.”
Hill now has the opportunity to be elected in a district that leans Democratic and is represented by a term-limited Democrat. That party will probably nominate a strong candidate to oppose him.
He’ll have to convince voters that they should send one of the state’s top-tier business leaders to represent them in a middle-class Legislature. His name won’t create the same kind of buzz as some of the state’s more famous ones would, but he will have the money to run whatever kind of campaign he feels he needs.
That alone won’t be enough. To get elected, he’ll probably have to go door to door campaigning, just like he did on a bicycle in 1966.
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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner