Arkansas: First District|
Rep. Marion Berry (D)
Last Updated June 1, 1999
The Mississippi Delta, the flat, mushy, river-crossed lowland on both sides of the great river, was some of the country's first industrial farmland. This land was uncultivated in the 19th Century, when plows were still pulled by mules and muddy flatlands were impassable. Then, a century ago, 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 change slowly: the first minimum wage and war industry jobs up north drew young people out of the Delta and mechanization forced many off the farms. But this land--stretching flat as far as the eye can see, past rows of telephone poles and ribbons of asphalt that shimmer in the heat--remains poor by national standards and the people are undereducated and underemployed.
The 1st Congressional District includes most of the Arkansas's Delta lands and stretches west to the cool green Ozarks. The Delta started off heavily Democratic, while some of the hill counties are ancestrally Republican. That changed as partisan preferences oscillated wildly just after the civil rights revolution, but the district returned to its historical norm by the late 1980s, and the Delta provided critical support for, perhaps saving the career of, Bill Clinton in 1990. In 1992, Delta counties voted from 58% to 69% for Clinton, some of his best county showings anywhere in the United States.
The congressman from the 1st District is Marion Berry, a Democrat and Clinton supporter who won this district, though only narrowly, in 1996. Berry grew up in Bayou Meto in Arkansas County in the Delta. He earned a pharmacy degree in Little Rock, then ran a pharmacy for two years, and has been a family farmer since 1968, with a net worth of $1 million or more. He is a hunter, who likes to serve coon at his town's annual supper. ''He is the antithesis of cool and charisma,'' writes Michael Leahy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. ''He is quite satisfied to be the humble plodder appreciated by the people back home.'' Berry first met Clinton when he was running for attorney general in 1976, and was impressed with his fluency and knowledge: ''You thought to yourself right then--even though you didn't know him--that this guy could be governor, even president, one day.'' Governor Clinton appointed him to the Arkansas Soil & Water Conservation Commission in 1986, and President Clinton appointed him White House liaison to the Agriculture Department in 1993. Berry returned to Arkansas in 1996, after Congresswoman Blanche Lincoln announced she would not run for re-election because she was pregnant with twins. The twins safely born, she ran for the Senate in 1998 and, with strong support from the 1st District and especially the Delta, won.
Berry turned out to have tough opposition for her seat. Republican Warren DuPwe, a former Jonesboro city attorney who had won 47% against Lincoln in 1994, was running again. And in the Democratic primary, Tom Donaldson, a 28-year-old deputy prosecutor in Crittenden County, spent little money but ran rural radio ads criticizing Berry for accepting farm subsidies. He held Berry to a 48%-30% lead in the May 21 primary. Lincoln endorsed Berry and he brought in Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman to campaign for him. Yet he won the June 11 runoff by only 52%-48%. In the general, Berry repeatedly accused DuPwe of favoring Medicare cuts; DuPwe replied that he favored increasing Medicare spending more slowly. Both candidates opposed abortion rights and gun control and favored a balanced budget. Berry's Washington contacts proved more generous than DuPwe's; Berry outspent him nearly 2-1. Berry won 53%-44%.
Berry got seats on the Agriculture and Transportation committees--good spots for a constituency-oriented member. His voting record was moderate to liberal; a Blue Dog Democrat, he supported the balanced budget amendment and said he wanted to pay off the national debt and save Social Security and Medicare. He also said his primary goal was to avoid privatization of the Southwest Power Administration, which supplies electricity to city-owned utilities. He sponsored bills on rural health and fought a USDA and FDA investigation of dioxin spills which he said unwarrantedly threatened the local catfish and chicken industries. Unflashy but hard-working, he has worked to make this a safe district for re-election. Whether he has succeeded or not is unclear. Tommy Robinson, the tempestuous former (1984-1990) Democratic congressman from Little Rock, threatened to run here as a Republican in 1998, then suddenly withdrew; no one else ran, and Berry was unopposed in primary and general.
Probably Safe. The fact that Berry, a freshman, was unopposed in 1998 was surprising given that the 1st District's performance for Democrats had declined rather precipitously in the two preceding elections. While Berry's moderate voting record and strong agricultural background may have solidified the district for him, it's pretty clear that this is no longer the yellow dog Democratic district that it once was. Republicans will probably take a hard look at this district in 2000 and beyond, but when Berry steps aside, watch for them to go all out here.
- Pop. 1990: 588,588
- 52.8% rural;
15.8% age 65+;
- 81.4% White,
0.3% Amer. Indian,
0.5% Hispanic origin;
59.4% married couple families;
28.5% married couple fams. w. children;
26.2% college educ.;
median household income: $18,180;
per capita income: $9,148;
median gross rent: $182;
median house value: $40,100.
|1996 Presidential Vote|
|1992 Presidential Vote|
National Journal Group offers both print and electronic reprint services, as well as permissions for academic use, photocopying and republication. Click here to order, or call us at 877-394-7350.