John Burris, Jonathan Dismang and David Sanders Medicaid expansion was the story of the year and the most momentous decision facing the General Assembly in decades, with billions of dollars and health coverage for hundreds of thousands of low-income Arkansans at stake. Arkansas pursued a unique approach that became known as the “private option,” earning national attention and flipping enough Republican votes to secure (just barely) passage. Lots of people deserve credit — Gov. Mike Beebe, creative officials at the Department of Human Services in Arkansas and federal agencies in Washington, Democratic lawmakers who never wavered, tireless advocacy groups. But in the end, passage was only possible with Republicans on board, which never would have happened without a trio of young conservative legislators who sought an innovative solution that was best for the state rather than ideological rigidity. Sens. Dismang and Sanders and Rep. Burris outhustled and out-argued all comers and put their own stamp on a policy likely to have an outsized impact on the state for decades.
Mike Beebe He remains perhaps the most widely beloved governor in the country, and he had a triumphant legislative session for Beebe, adding the “private option” Medicaid expansion and the Big River Steel super project to his legacy. We’ll miss him when he’s gone.
Jeff Long Last year’s Arkansan of the Year hired the least successful Razorbacks football coach in recent memory and managed to secure a nice raise for his trouble. He’s likely to make the national sports pages next year — in October he was named the first chairman of the new College Football Playoff selection committee.
Tippi McCullough Warned through the grapevine that her employer was going to fire the 15-year English teacher at Mount St. Mary if she went through with marrying her long-time partner Barbara Mariani in October, McCullough went ahead with the ceremony. Less than an hour later, she and Mariani got the phone call that McCullough had been fired. As with the struggle for equality for other groups throughout American history, progress for gays and lesbians requires a few good people to take a beating so everybody else can finally see how unjust the system is.
Nate Powell The award-winning artist and North Little Rock native illustrated “March,” an acclaimed graphic novel published by Top Shelf this summer, the first in a trilogy telling the story of civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who worked closely with Powell on the project.
Davy Carter The first Republican Speaker of the House in Arkansas since Reconstruction, Carter got some of the tax cuts for the wealthy he craved and was another key player in securing passage of the “private option.”
G. David Gearhart The University of Arkansas hit record enrollment, a number of its colleges drew high praises and qualifications of entering freshmen are better than ever. But it was nevertheless a sour year for Gearhart, who got bogged down in a controversy over deficit spending in the university’s Advancement Division, leading to public fights with fired officials, a tough grilling from legislative committees and ongoing questions about transparency and accountability at the University.
Cody Wilson Former UCA Student Government President Cody Wilson, 25, could have ended up on Wall Street or practicing generic corporate law from a corner office. Instead, the self-described “Crypto-Anarchist” headed the team that created and fired the first 3D-printed plastic gun back in May.
The Corrupt Politician Bribes in a pie box! Gas-station fundraisers! Campaign shopping sprees! Treasurer Martha Shoffner, state Sen. Paul Bookout and Lt. Gov. Mark Darr resigned in disgrace, but not before embarrassing the state with comically shady ethics.
Jimmy Joe Johnson On the morning of March 29, the morning ExxonMobil’s Pegasus Pipeline ruptured in Mayflower, Jimmy Joe Johnson was just a plain ol’ superintendent of the Mayflower Streets Department. By sundown, however, he was one of the unsung heroes of the worst environmental disaster in Arkansas history. It was Johnson’s quick work — blocking two 48-inch metal culverts that run under Highway 89 that connect the soon-to-be-devastated cove area to the main body of the lake with sheets of plywood, dirt and 1,000 tons of gravel — that saved Lake Conway, one of Central Arkansas’s more popular fishing lakes, from far worse destruction.
Leonard Cooper The 17-year-old won the $75,000 Jeopardy Teen Tournament in February.
Lauren Strother Ballet Arkansas’s executive director has, since her hiring in 2011, made the company financially stable, increased its budget and raised money to allow the ballet to lease space in the Creative Corridor downtown, in the Arkansas Building at Sixth and Main, the first rehearsal space of its own the ballet has ever had.
Grant Tennille The director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission stood up against ignorance, announcing at a press conference for the Human Rights Campaign that he believed that it would be a smart economic move if Arkansas would lead the South by legalizing marriage by people of the same gender. “Companies look for locations where all of their employees can be welcomed,” Tennille said. Meanwhile, Tennille’s marathon session of testimony before the Arkansas General Assembly helped assure approval of the state’s first “super project,” bringing the $1 billion Big River Steel to Mississippi County.
Bobby Roberts The latest star in the Central Arkansas Library System director’s crown is the Arcade, a joint project between CALS and private developers at the corner of President Clinton and River Market Avenue, which features a state-of-the-art theater to be used both for CALS programming and as the home of the Little Rock Film Festival. The building will also hold additional archival space for the library, and brings more fine dining to the River Market district with Cache Restaurant.
Jason Rapert His law to make abortion illegal after 12 weeks (which has been stayed by a federal judge) brought scorn on Arkansas as the leader in American misogyny, but at least the state’s people were awakened to the fact that our legislators are more than willing to ignore the law of the land and require that women bear children.
Dustin McDaniel The attorney general began the year as the heavy favorite for the Democratic nomination for governor, but dropped out after news broke of an extramarital affair. If McDaniel’s year was marked only scandal and political gossip, he wouldn’t make this list, but he went on to have arguably the most successful year of any politician in the state. He earned acclaim as the state’s toughest advocate holding Exxon accountable in the wake of the Mayflower oil spill, for his adept handling of the successful negotiation of the school desegregation case and for several big settlements for the state.