Anniversary fete in Little Rock highlights legacy of Constitution Convention of 1980
October 14-20, 2019
By Wesley Brown
The remaining 39 living delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1979-1980 and a host of dignitaries held a festive reunion in Little Rock on Saturday (Oct. 5, 2019) to reminisce about Arkansas’ last notable, but failed attempt at constitution reform in Arkansas.
The event, held at the Embassy Suites Hotel in West Little Rock, brought together one-third of the former 100 delegates and legislative staff who first gathered at the State Capitol 40 years ago to convene last effort to replace the current constitution adopted in 1874. The highlight of the 40th-year anniversary of the political footnote was a video message from then governor and former President Bill Clinton.
In his brief charge, Clinton told each of the 1980 Constitutional Convention delegates to rekindle the legacy of what many called their first and greatest experience in public service.
“Dream big and get caught trying,” Clinton admonished delegates, guest and family members in his 90-second video message at the Embassy Suites meeting room.
Clinton also reminded the roomful of Arkansas notables that at the time of the 1980 convention, he had just been swept into office in November 1978 as Arkansas youngest-ever governor. His victory came after Gov. Davis Pryor won the Democratic senatorial nomination over U.S. Rep. Jim Tucker, and later secured a lopsided general election victory over the liberal Republican Tom Kelly, who advocated then for marijuana legalization.
Besides Clinton’s message, other attendees at the gala included the elder Pryor and Tucker, the respective 39th and 43rd governors of the state of Arkansas. Pryor left the governor’s chair in 1979 after winning a seat in the U.S. Senate following the death of longtime U.S. Sen. John McClellan in 1977. Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat who held the same seat that his father vacated in 1997, also attended the event with his son and gave a stirring invocation that also provided a look back at one of noted eras in Arkansas political history.
Arkansas Constitution History
Efforts to call the 1980 convention got underway in August 1977 during a special session of the legislature where compromise legislation was enacted. In the 1978 general election, the same election that Clinton propelled from the attorney general’s office to the governor’s chair, voters selected 100 delegates to the convention. They also chose the general election in the fall of 1980 as the preferred time to decide the fate of any constitutional document produced.
The conventioneers first met in May 1979, recessed in mid-June to gauge public opinion, and then reconvened a year later. Among other things, the proposed constitutional changes included the selection of judges by merit rather than popular election, the overhaul of the state’s usury laws and a property tax relief measure that included the rollback of state millage rates.
How Arkansas got to its eighth constitutional convention began in 1836 when the state held its first gathering to draft a document in order to qualify for statehood. That constitution was ratified by Congress and later signed by President Andrew Jackson on June 15, 1836.
The next constitution was created in May 1861 when the state seceded from the Union. That draft document kept most of the original constitution in intact but changed references to the United States to the Confederate States of America.
The third constitution was adopted in 1864 and was a requirement to qualify for wartime reconstruction. The fourth constitution officially brought Arkansas back to the Union in 1868. It was written following the terms of the Reconstruction Acts of 1867. The fifth and final constitution, which transferred a great deal of power from the state to local governments, was adopted seven years later.
Despite all efforts and numerous endorsements of the 1980 document, voters strongly defeated the proposed constitution in 1980 by a wide margin of 62.7 percent. In the years after the defeat, some critics of the unsuccessful convention say it came too soon after the similarly failed Constitution Convention of 1970, where an earlier group of 100 delegates also sought to tackle the state’s usury laws, as well the Arkansas’ “right to work” status and voting age.
39 Living Legends
Two of those former delegates and organizers of the 40th anniversary event, Arkansas Chief Justice Dan Kemp and Arkansas Court of Appeals Judge Raymond Abramson, both told The Daily Record they still believe what they achieved in 1980 had a lasting impact on the outdated Arkansas Constitution.
“We proposed [our] Constitution, and ironically several of the provisions have passed since then, [including] property taxes and judicial articles,” said Kemp, noting that the Arkansas Constitution has been amended over 100 times since. “Even though we couldn’t get the whole document back in the 1980s, we were successful in getting parts of it done over the years. That has been gratifying.”
Kemp, a Mountain View native elected as a representative to the 1980 assembly from Izard, Sharp and Stone counties, said he and fellow delegate Archie Schaffer first came up with the idea for the convention reunion more than a year ago after seeing each other at a local event. Those relit memories led Kemp, Abramson, Schaffer and Arkansas Second Judicial Judge Ralph Wilson Jr., to begin brainstorming on how to bring all the delegates back together one more time after nearly four decades.
“I just thought that after 40 years, we need to get together because if we waited until 50 years there may not be much of us left,” laughed Kemp, who was elected as the Chief Justice in 2016 after 30 years as a state circuit court judge.
Schaffer, a longtime Tyson executive, said once the group began organizing and planning for the 40-year get-together, they found efforts to locate all the living and deceased delegates was not an easy one. The task was so daunting that a scheduled anniversary gala for the spring was postponed to try and find all 100 citizen lawmakers.
“There are five or six people we still could not find, living or deceased. There was no information about finding them anywhere,” said Schaffer, who worked with Gov. Clinton on educational reform and economic development issues after the 1980 convention. He was later hired by Tyson Foods CEO Don Tyson in the early 1990s, and spent 28 years in public relations, communications and governmental affairs at the Springdale-based food and meat giant.
Altogether, Schaffer said the organizers were able to also identify 54 deceased delegates out of the 100 convention-goers, including former University of Arkansas Dean of Law School Robert Leflar, who served as chairman of the convention; former U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes; and former state legislators Cal Ledbetter Jr. and Henry Wilkins III of Pulaski and Jefferson counties, respectively.
Among the living delegates, several of the former constitutional experts like Kemp, Abramson and Wilson entered the legal professional as law professors, attorneys and judges. Other delegates have had successful careers as Arkansas legislators, mayors and state policymakers or decided to seek professional paths in education, business and advocating on minority and women issues.
For example, Charlie Cole Chaffin, who represented Saline and Garland counties, won a special election in 1984 to the Arkansas Senate. For nearly 10 years, Chaffin would be the longest serving woman in the Arkansas Senate with 34 men. She would later run a losing race for lieutenant governor in 1994 against Mike Huckabee, who later became a governor in 1996 after Tucker resigned in office.
Also, convention delegates Jim Dailey Jr. and Patrick Hays of Pulaski County, both were elected as mayors of Little Rock and North Little Rock, respectively. Dailey, now tourism director for the state of Arkansas, served as Little Rock’s longtime mayor from 1993 to 2006. Hays, an Arkansas House representative from 1987 to 1989, served as North Little Rock from mayor from 1989 to 2013 before an unsuccessful run as the Democratic nominee for 2nd District congressional seat in 2014.
Convention delegate Percy Malone of Clark County served in the Arkansas senate from 2001-2012. He was also a highly success businessman as president and owner of a chain of 23 AllCare Pharmacies across the state. Bobby Glover, a 1980 delegate representing Prairie, Lonoke, White and Arkansas counties, had a successful 20-year career in the Arkansas legislature before he was elected as mayor of Carlisle for another 10 years.
The 1980 convention also ignited the careers of several staffers who helped draft the proposed constitution that was presented to Arkansas voters. They included Kay Goss, the chief of staff who later became the first woman to serve as assistant director of Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Clinton.
Other noted staffers included Susan Webber Wright, who is now a senior U.S. District Judge for the federal Eastern District of Arkansas in Little Rock. Former U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, who gave a rousing speech at the Little Rock reunion event, also serve on the convention staff as a law school intern.
Toward the end of the three-hour anniversary celebration, Abramson presided over an emotional part of the ceremony where each of the former delegates, staffers and guest all shared poignant moments on how the convention gave each a one-time opportunity to get an up-close-and-person look at Arkansas Constitution. Looking back, the Arkansas appellate court judge said he believes the convention that produced a president, several congressmen and senators, judges, attorneys, and business and community leaders will be remembered well in history.
“It was an impressive group of people,” concluded Abramson at the 40th anniversary celebration.
1. The last notable attempt for constitution reform in Arkansas was remembered on Oct. 5 – delegates and dignitaries gathered to reminisce at a festive reunion held at the Embassy Suites Hotel in West Little Rock. (Left to right) Former U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater; Arkansas Chief Justice Dan Kemp; former Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker; and Carey Walker, all shares stories from the Constitution Convention of 1980. Learn more about its rich history on page 12. (Photos provided)
2. Display of the 100 delegates of the Constitution Convention of 1980 at the Embassy Suites Hotel.
3. Cindy Shepherd, staffer at the Constitutional Convention of 1980, stands in front of a poster of the 100 delegates of the convention.
4. (Left to right) Former Tyson Foods executive Archie Schaffer; Cabot attorney Frank Huckaba and Sandy Huckabee, all reminisce about the eighth and last attempt to replace the Arkansas Constitution in 1980 at a 40th reunion gala in Little Rock.
5. Virginia Shepherd of Jonesboro speaks about her experience as one of the oldest living delegates from the Constitutional Convention of 1980. Shepherd, who represented Craighead and Poinsett counties, in one of 39 living delegates from the historic convention forty years ago.
6. Nancy Thornton and Terri Bone, share a laugh at the 40th reunion of the Constitution Convention of 1980. The two women were staffers for the state’s last attempt to amend the Arkansas Constitution, ratified in 1874.