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Former U.S. Sen. David Pryor has died

Former U.S. Senator David Pryor (center) at a KUAR-hosted discussion on Oct. 4, 2017 at the main branch of the Central Arkansas Library System.
Michael Hibblen
Little Rock Public Radio
Former U.S. Sen. David Pryor died Saturday at the age of 89.

David Pryor, a key Arkansas political figure for more than five decades from the governor’s office to the halls of Congress, died Saturday. He was 89.

A U.S. Senator, congressman and governor, Pryor, former President Bill Clinton, and former U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers were once considered the “Big Three” of modern Arkansas politics.

Pryor is survived by his wife, Barbara; three children, David H. Jr., Mark, and Scott; and four grandchildren, David H. III, Adams, Porter, and Devon.

Pryor, the former editor and publisher of the Ouachita Citizen in Camden, Ark., began his political career in the Arkansas House of Representatives where he served three terms between 1961 and 1966 before representing the Fourth District in the U.S. Congress. He was elected Arkansas governor in 1974 and reelected in 1976 before winning the 1978 race for U.S. Senate.

“The four-year governorship of Dale Bumpers that preceded Pryor’s had been a period of abrupt change in Arkansas government, with the passage of significant reforms in a wide variety of policy areas, a historic income tax increase, and a major reorganization of government. Pryor’s governorship continued these modernizing changes including calling a constitutional convention to reform the state’s constitution and the creation of a state natural and cultural heritage department. Perhaps the most significant contribution was the appointment of a large number of African Americans and women to high-profile positions,” according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Pryor, a Democrat, was also chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas taking over after the tragic shooting death of Bill Gwatney, and he was the founding dean of the Clinton School of Public Service.

“The Democratic Party of Arkansas is in mourning today for the man who loved and knew us best, U.S. Senator David Pryor,” said Grant Tennille, chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas. “Senator Pryor’s love for Arkansas and her people will be remembered forever. Arkansas Democrats will remember that in triumph and tragedy, ‘DP’ served his state and our party with care, kindness and a steady calm that reminded us that ‘Arkansas Comes First’ and tomorrow will be a better day. Today, we find comfort in that wisdom.”

'Dedicated Stewardship'

Pryor studied at Henderson State University before earning a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Arkansas and a law degree from the University of Arkansas School of Law.

In 1972, then-Congressman Pryor challenged the re-election of conservative Democratic U.S. Sen. John L. McClellan, who was seeking his sixth term in the Senate. McClellan defeated Pryor, but the loss ultimately set Pryor up to run for governor in 1974. He served two two-year terms as governor before running for the open U.S. Senate seat of McClellan, who had died in 1977.

Pryor was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1978 and would remain in the Senate until his retirement in 1997. During his 18 years in the Senate, his leadership positions included secretary of the Democratic Conference, third in the Senate Democratic Leadership, a member of the Senate Democratic Steering Committee, and chair of the Agriculture Subcommittee on Agricultural Production and Stabilization of Prices and the Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Service, Civil Service, and Post Office.

U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., praised Pryor’s legacy and said the state is better because of his service.

“David Pryor’s life was characterized by service to his community, state and country. Arkansas has benefited tremendously from his dedicated stewardship as a legislator, governor and citizen deeply invested in helping ensure our best days were still ahead. I greatly admired the courtesy, integrity and wisdom he personally modeled and instilled in others. Cathy and I are praying for his loved ones as they reflect on his memory and take comfort in the historic legacy he has left them and countless Arkansans,” Boozman said.

Coalition Builder

In a September 2013 interview with Scott Lunsford at the University of Arkansas, Pryor talked about his strategy to gain ground in crowded political races.

“Politics is not about subtraction, it’s about addition. And you added all these little coalitions and groups together, and before you know it, you come close to having a majority. I mean, you build a force. You put all the little pieces together, kind of like a puzzle,” Pryor said.

Pryor was best known during his Senate tenure for his aging issues and tax fairness advocacy. He chaired in 1995 the Senate Special Committee on Aging and the 1995 White House Conference on Aging. He led the charge for a U.S. Taxpayer Bill of Rights and helped legislate major reforms to the nursing home industry and elder care.

When Bill Clinton was president in the 90’s, Pryor’s national political influence was major due to their long-running relationship.

Following retirement from the Senate, Pryor was Fulbright Distinguished Fellow of Law and Public Affairs at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville for a semester. In 2000, he began a two-year term as director of the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Media Preservation

Pryor would also donate unused campaign funds to the University of Arkansas to manage his gubernatorial and senatorial papers and support the university’s other documentation efforts. That effort would result in the creation of the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Oral and Visual History that remains active in, among other things, digitizing decades of media reports.

Pryor was appointed by Gov. Mike Beebe to the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees in 2009. Beebe said Pryor was practical and passionate in his approach to public service.

“David Pryor was exactly the kind of honest and pragmatic person who is always needed in public office. His personal style of homespun humor, quick wit, and genuine warmth, combined with his deep knowledge, gave him the ability to pass progressive legislation that was so beneficial to our state,” Beebe noted. “His top priorities of Arkansas Comes First and focusing on the problems of our aging population and taxpayer reform made him beloved by his colleagues and his constituents. He was a close personal friend and confidant who was always available for help and advice and he leaves an amazing legacy of public service.”

Archie Schaffer III, a consultant with Springdale-based Tyson Foods, founding chairman of the Pryor Center Advisory Board at the University of Arkansas, and a longtime politico and administrative assistant for then Gov. Dale Bumpers – whom Pryor often called his best friend – called Pryor a “true statesman.”

“I have been pleased to be involved in Arkansas politics in one way or another, for more than 50 years. It was a true honor to have known and worked for and with David Pryor for much of that time. David Pryor was a true statesman and gentleman throughout his career, the likes of which we may never see again. He will go down in history as one of our best Governors and finest U.S. Senators. He was simply a fabulous public servant and a model for Arkansas elected officials to emulate for decades to come.”

Pryor also spent eight years on the national Corporation for Public Broadcasting Board of Directors, and in 2019 received the CBP Lifetime Achievement Award to recognize his contributions to public media.

Pryor’s son, Mark, followed in his father’s political footsteps, having served in the Arkansas House, Arkansas Attorney General, and the U.S. Senate.

This story comes from the staff of Talk Business & Politics, a content partner with KUAR News. You can hear the weekly program on Mondays at 6:06 p.m.