Rep. Marion Berry (D)
Arkansas 1st District
The Mississippi Delta, the flat, mucky, river-crossed lowland on both sides of the great river, was some of the country’s first industrial farmland. This land was uncultivated in most of the 19th century, when plows were still pulled by mules and muddy flatlands were impassable. Then, big landowners used machines to drain the marshlands and persuaded poor blacks to move here to tend fields of cotton, rice, and later, soybeans. The results were bountiful agriculture and impoverished people. Around 1940, the Delta began to slowly change: the first minimum-wage and war-industry jobs up North drew young people out of the Delta, and the introduction of the mechanical cotton picker idled many farm workers.
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But this land—stretching flat as far as the eye can see, along ribbons of asphalt that shimmer in the heat—remains poor by national standards. The people are undereducated, and the area has substantial pockets of unemployment. Local rice farmers are among the largest recipients of federal farm subsidies: The congressional district ranked fifth in the nation, pulling in $5.2 billion from 1995 to 2006. Riceland Foods, in the town of Stuttgart, is the world’s largest rice miller and marketer and the largest recipient of subsidies in the United States, having received $554 million from 1995 to 2006. The rice producer has attracted an unusual partner in recent years, Colusa Biomass, which hopes to make ethanol out of rice hulls and plans to move its corporate headquarters to Stuttgart in 2009. The local rice fields also attract ducks, helping put Arkansas on the map as the most productive state for mallard hunters. Several big auto-parts plants have been built in Marion, across the Mississippi River from Memphis. But in 2007, when Toyota chose a site for its seventh North American plant, Marion lost out to Tupelo, Miss., in part because of local air-quality problems. The 2007 closure of the Addison Shoe Co. plant in Wynne brought additional economic woes to the area, idling about 174 workers.
The 1st Congressional District of Arkansas includes most of the state’s Delta lands and stretches west to the cool, green Ozarks. The largest city in the district is Jonesboro, whose cheap labor and flat land have made it an industrial hub for food-processing companies like Nestle and Frito-Lay. In 2008, the StarTek call center brought a few hundred more jobs to the area. The district’s natural beauty draws outdoorsmen to the sleepy Ozark town of Mountain Home, named Outdoor Life magazine’s best place to live in 2008. The Delta, with its large black population, is the most Democratic part of Arkansas. Some of the hill counties are ancestrally Republican, and there is a Republican trend in Jonesboro and in Lonoke County, which is part of the Little Rock metro area. The result is that the district is closely divided in national politics. It voted 50%-48% for Democrat Al Gore in 2000 but 52%-47% for Republican George W. Bush in 2004. In 2008, the district voted 59% for Republican John McCain.
Rep. Marion Berry (D)
Elected: 1996, 7th term.
Born: Aug. 27, 1942, Bayou Meto .
Education: U. of AR, B.S. 1965.
Family: Married (Carolyn); 2 children.
Professional Career: Pharmacist, 1965–67; Farmer, 1968–present; AR Soil & Water Conservation Comm., 1986–94, chmn. 1992; Special asst. to the pres., Domestic Policy Cncl., White House, 1993–96.
The congressman from the 1st District is Marion Berry, a Democrat who was first elected in 1996. He is the type of folksy, small-town Southern Democrat who has been prominent in Congress: “a pharmacist and a farmer, the owner of a loud laugh,” as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette described him.w Berry grew up in the town of Bayou Meto near DeWitt in Arkansas County. After his first year of college, his rice-farming father suggested that he study something besides farming, so he earned a pharmacy degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He spent a lot of time at Bruice Drugstore, a small pharmacy run by family friend George Wimberly, who later became the mayor of Little Rock. Berry developed an interest in politics through his friendship with Wimberly. “All the political horsepower came and went through that drugstore,” he recalls.
|Marion Berry (D)||Unopposed||($848,986)|
|Marion Berry (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (69%), 2004 (67%), 2002 (67%), 2000 (60%), 1998 (100%), 1996 (53%)
In 1968, he returned to Arkansas County to farm with his brothers and participated in politics on the side. Berry was a farmer in some capacity until 2005. During that time, he accumulated a net worth of more than $1 million. In 2006, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that since 1994, Berry had received more than $800,000 in federal farm subsidies through a corporate structure, of which he owned 50%. The other 50 percent was divided equally between Berry’s son, Mitchell, and a family friend, Danny Sloate. Berry said in a 2008 interview that he is not involved in the day-to-day management of the corporation and does not receive a salary.
Berry began to move into the political realm in 1986, when Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton, advocating changes in the state’s water policy, appointed him to the Arkansas Soil & Water Conservation Commission. Berry later made the transition to Washington after attending a Clinton political party: “I made a comment that I thought it’d be fun to come here [to Washington] and work with a new administration.” Not expecting anything to come of his offhand remark, Berry received a call from the Clinton administration three days later and an appointment as White House liaison to the Agriculture Department. Berry returned to Arkansas in 1996 to run for the U.S. House after Rep. Blanche Lincoln, pregnant with twins, did not pursue re-election. (Lincoln later won the Senate seat of retiring Democrat Dale Bumpers.) Berry had tough opposition for the seat in Tom Donaldson, a 28-year-old deputy prosecutor in Crittenden County who spent little money but ran rural radio ads criticizing Berry for accepting farm subsidies. Berry won the primary runoff by only 52%-48%. In the general election, Berry faced Republican Warren Dupwe, a former Jonesboro city attorney. They sparred over Medicare, both candidates opposed abortion rights and gun control, and both favored a balanced budget. Berry outspent Dupwe nearly 2-to-1 and, in a district that has never elected a Republican, won 53%-44%.
Berry’s cooperation with Democratic leaders earned him a seat on leadership-run legislative task forces and a slot on the Appropriations Committee. His voting record is mostly moderate but a bit more liberal on foreign policy. A Blue Dog Democrat, he supported the balanced-budget amendment and said he wanted to pay off the national debt. He voted against Republican tax cuts because they are “just borrowing money from our children and grandchildren.” He visited Cuba twice to promote an end to the trade embargo, so that Arkansas farmers could sell rice and feed products there. He also has a personal interest in the country. In 1958, his father was in Cuba working to organize a rice farm there, and while he was home for Christmas, Castro took power, ending the plan.
With his background as a pharmacist, Berry was a natural choice to be out front in the Democratic opposition to the GOP prescription-drug bill in 2003. He was one of three House Democrats appointed to the House-Senate conference committee, all of whom complained of being shut out of the negotiations over creating the first drug benefit in the Medicare program. The final bill was “the sorriest piece of legislation” that Congress ever enacted, Berry said. “It is nothing but an expedited way to make it legal to cheat and steal from old people,” he said. His partisan instincts got the best of him during a 2005 House floor debate on the budget, when he called the boyish-looking, redheaded Adam Putnam, a Florida Republican, “a Howdy Doody-looking nimrod.” After Democrats won a majority in 2006, Berry became a leading sponsor of legislation that would allow the federal government to negotiate prescription-drug prices with drug companies under Medicare, an element expressly left out of the 2003 bill because of strong objections from the pharmaceutical industry.
Berry also got a seat on the Budget Committee, making him one of only a handful of representatives to serve on both the budget and appropriations committees. As a member of the Blue Dogs, he is an advocate on the budget panel for sticking to the “pay go” rule, which requires new spending or tax cuts to be offset elsewhere in the budget. “If it’s not paid for, I won’t vote for it,” Berry told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. But on the appropriations committee, he has also been an advocate for federal spending in his hard-pressed district. He told the newspaper, “Being an appropriator, I like earmarks, make no apologies for them.” Berry can also be a tough critic of federal agencies that fall short of his expectations. After severe storms struck Arkansas in April 2006, Berry, with his usual blunt rhetoric, call the Federal Emergency Management Agency “an incompetent bunch of nincompoops who can’t run their agency.”
He has been re-elected easily and in 2008 was unopposed.