It occurred to me Monday that I was having lunch with the dominant force in the Arkansas Democratic Party, a man in whose image the party is steadily being remade.
This is not the prettiest face in the world, but one weathered by more than 60 years. It is that of a good ol’ boy, a man who can farm, hunt, tell a funny story and espouse social and fiscal conservatism while spouting fiery populist rhetoric to decry the thieving drug companies and champion “poor folks.”
He looked rather frightful, actually, with his neck bandaged from surgery in January on four vertebrae. He’s doing fine and should be finished with the cleric-looking bandage in three weeks. He ordered and devoured fried green tomatoes. I didn’t even know the Faded Rose offered fried green tomatoes.
This was Marion Berry, the druggist and farmer from Gillett who is the congressman from the 1st District of eastern Arkansas and a member of the Appropriations Committee, which he said would be a good place to be if the Republicans hadn’t squandered all the spending money.
The young man who runs Berry’s Jonesboro field office, Jason Willett, just threw out Ron Oliver and got himself elected chairman of the state Democratic Party. Berry said he didn’t put Willett up to it, contrary to popular opinion. But he clearly didn’t mind. He permitted it and, even still, keeps Willett as a congressional employee.
The New Republic said last week that Arkansas was one of three states to throw out centrist state Democratic chairmen and replace them with Howard Dean-like liberals. That was not merely absurdly inaccurate, but guffawable. Willett is from the Berry and Blanche Lincoln school of Democratic politics, which is to hunt and fish and go to the coon supper and get no further left than the center. That’s where Willett and Berry want to take and keep the state Democratic Party.
Berry was in town on congressional recess and awaiting an evening reception with state Democratic legislators at which he intended to begin the recruitment of them into a formal Blue Dog coalition. He is a Blue Dog in Washington. The Blue Dogs are conservative-to-moderate Democrats, mostly Southern. Most Democrats in the state legislature are Blue Dogs, whether they know it or not. Or they’re Republicans.
Meantime, people may not be aware of Berry’s closeness with the presumptive Democratic candidate for governor, Mike Beebe, the attorney general and longtime leading state senator.
Berry was a constituent of Beebe’s Senate district for two decades. In the late ‘80s, Beebe persuaded then-Gov. Bill Clinton to appoint Berry to the Game and Fish Commission. Typically, Clinton reneged at the last minute when Hillary told him he needed to appoint an African-American, Tommy Sproles.
But it all worked out. Because of guilt over that slight, Clinton took Berry to Washington as an agriculture aide in the White House. From there Berry got elected to Congress in 1996.
Berry has been squiring Beebe to functions in East Arkansas and advising him on the curious intricacies of Delta politics.
To Democrats who have told me they’re worried that Beebe tends to prefer listening to his own brilliance than listening to others, owing to uncommon success as trial lawyer and legislator, and wondered who if anyone had the savvy and the relationship with Beebe to tell him the truth and compel him to change, I suggest that Marion Berry already is performing that valuable function.