I was taking a break, coffee and a sweet roll at the Capitol snack bar, just around the corner from the Senate. Checking e-mail, phone messages, scanning the headlines. There’s a tap on my shoulder, and if it isn’t a face from the not too distant past.
“Hey, man,” said former Sen. Bill Lewellen of Marianna.
“Lobbying, I presume?” as he took a seat.
“Nah,” he replied. “Just a couple of bills I want to see introduced. Looking for a sponsor.” A twinkle in his eye. I made a conscious decision not to ask about the legislation. (The deadline for introducing bills has since passed. I can only presume Lewellen was successful).
Statecraft or no it was a good day for Lewellen to return to the Capitol. Some of his kin were to be honored that day: Mr. and Mrs. Herman Lewellen, he a civil rights leader in Jonesboro, and wife, Mildred, the first black teacher in the previously all-white Jonesboro schools. Her pupils would include youngsters who grew up to be state Sen. Paul Bookout and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel.
Lewellen defeated longtime Sen. Paul Benham, also an attorney of Marianna, in a 1991 Democratic primary that followed legislative redistricting. Benham, who died not long thereafter, would deny employing a racial slur attributed to him during the campaign, a comment in which he lambasted then-Gov. Bill Clinton for supposedly engineering his defeat through a territorial reconfiguration to guarantee an African-American majority. The new district lines may have doomed Benham regardless, but the purported comment obviously did not endear him to black voters.
In the inside baseball of the Senate Lewellen frequently aligned himself with the faction led by another former member, Nick Wilson of Pocahontas. Wilson — oh, you know.
With health care and Medicaid expansion cooking behind the scenes, abortion was the dominant issue of the moment, had been the dominant issue of for days. I brought up neither, choosing to ask Lewellen about the state of black politics in east Arkansas.
“There’s been no active voter registration in the Delta in 15 years. I’d say since at least 1990,” he reflected. The state Democratic Party had put no money into it and was missing a big opportunity. Because: “A lot of people have moved on, in one way or another.”
Eligible but unregistered? “I’d guess 35 percent of the population overall. I’m not talking black or white, I’m talking both. And I’d say 35 percent is conservative.”
That took us to another simmering question, one of special sensitivity to Democrats in general and African-Americans in particular: voter identification.
Should a requirement of government-issued photo i.d. for voting survive a certain legal test — opponents allege it violates the Arkansas Constitution — Lewellen said it unquestionably would negatively impact turnout among the low-income of all races.
“It’s gonna diminish participation, sure. You have a lot of poor people, black and white, who don’t have that kind of identification. They’re old, they’ve let their driver’s licenses expire, or they never had one, didn’t need one. They didn’t have cars or trucks. They walked to where they needed to go, or someone drove them. Some of them couldn’t find their birth certificates if they had to.”
I noted that the sponsor of the legislation was seeking an appropriation, $300,000 or so, to equip every county clerk with the equipment needed to provide photo i.d. cards at no charge to anyone who qualified. At “qualified,” Lewellen’s eyebrows arched. He smiled.
“Besides,” he added, “you would still have the transportation problem, getting those people without an i.d. to the county courthouse. That’s discouraging to a lot of people.”
Where was the evidence of voting fraud on any scale big enough to tip the scales? Yeah, there was that business over in Crittenden County, that state representative and his daddy and a couple pals, in trouble with the feds for buying votes with booze and food and cash and the like. But look, those were absentee ballots they were using. Would the postman delivering a requested absentee ballot make the mail patron show his or her i.d.?
Lewellen has had a brush or two with the law. In the late 1990s his car struck and killed a Lee County woman, and he was charged with drunken driving, a charge later dismissed. A few years later a federal bankruptcy judge found Lewellen and his client, former U.S. Rep. Tommy Robinson of Brinkley, guilty of contempt and jugged them for a night.
Lewellen is assumed to have done well for himself as an attorney for the plaintiffs in the Lake View school funding case, which reshaped public education in Arkansas.
The afternoon was getting on. “I better run, man,” Lewellen said, standing. Still standing.
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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and host of Arkansas Week on AETN.