Leader Blues

Friday, August 15, 2008

TOP STORY > >Gwatney: He found his voice in politics

By GARRICK FELDMAN, Leader Publisher

Not long after he was shot at Democratic Party headquarters just before noon on Wednesday, Bill Gwatney’s family and friends knew his wounds would prove to be fatal.

They were on the phone with each other, sharing the terrible news, knowing he’d been assassinated in the shadow of the state Capitol, where he served three terms in the Senate and acquired impressive political skills that put him at the head of the state Democratic Party.

Several relatives, friends and notables rushed to UAMS, where he’d been taken after he was shot. Gov. Beebe was there after he turned his plane around when he heard his friend had been gunned down. Legislators huddled outside and knew the news was not good.

But they were there to show that Bill meant a lot to them, this son of a humble car dealer who started with nothing in Jacksonville more than 50 years ago and built an automotive empire with his two boys in several states and helped organize Citizens Bank in the 1960s.

Bill went on to build his own little empire — after acquiring majority ownership in Gwatney Chevrolet in Jacksonville, he bought Sidney Moncrief’s old dealership in Sherwood and Dick Layton Buick-Pontiac in Little Rock.

Gwatney was always good for a quote — he knew how to work the media and gave us stories whenever we needed something to splash on the front page — and he really found his voice in the Legislature, where he championed health-care reform and fought Gov. Huckabee on his lousy ethics with anti-corruption legislation.

Some people thought Bill was arrogant, but no more than his predecessor in the Senate, Max Howell, the longest serving legislator in America.

Howell, who was in the Legislature for 46 years, was one of the reasons term limits were passed in Arkansas, which turned out to be a mixed blessing as too many talented people are driven out of office much too soon.

Gwatney could serve just 10 years in the Senate and might have run for governor one day, if not for the imagined personal grievance of a lonely killer.

Four hours after the shooting, the announcement was made that the 48-year-old party chairman had passed away.

His Yukon was still parked in front of the small party headquarters building near the state Capitol. Timothy Johnson, his killer, couldn’t miss the SUV there, figuring the man he wanted dead was inside.

In almost an instant — just moments after Johnson walked into the building, just past the secretary up front and into Gwatney’s nearby office — a promising political leader was gunned down at close range with several shots to his chest.

Johnson, 50, a troubled loner from Searcy, had attended a class reunion last weekend with the few friends he had made at the technical college he attended in 1977 down in Hope, where he finished first in his class.

It was perhaps his way of saying goodbye to them because he would not be taken alive after his rampage.

Gwatney’s co-workers are lucky that Johnson didn’t shoot at them, or at the people working at the nearby Arkansas Baptist Convention building, where he went after he’d shot Gwatney.

He aimed his gun at an employee there but decided not to shoot. Instead, he walked to his small pickup truck and drove toward Sheridan, where he was killed after a long chase.

We’ll never understand Johnson’s strange fascination with Gwatney: Two rings of keys from a Gwatney dealership and the chairman’s name written on a Post-it note were found in Johnson’s home.

Did he hate Gwatney because he was head of the Arkansas Democratic Party, or was he upset over a vehicle he had bought from a Gwatney dealership? Police are still investigating a possible motive, although we might never know why he chose this victim.

Back when Bill Clinton became governor for the second time in 1982, he fired Bill’s father Harold as adjutant general — a standard procedure in politics — and it looked as if the family would never forgive Clinton — Gwatney even switched parties for a while, saying he was upset at the governor for doing what he did.

And yet when he died, Bill was a Hillary Clinton supporter and a superdelegate to this month’s Democratic convention, which he would have enjoyed attending because he loved politics and could talk about it all the day if you let him.

He understood how politics worked — it was about building relationships, he’d tell you — and he was as good as the best of the southern legislators who spent a lifetime in politics. Had he lived, he could have become governor or run for some other office because politics was his true calling. It was an amazing talent that few people realized he had when he started out, winning a Senate seat from Jacksonville in 1992 and forming a lasting alliance with Mike Beebe, when he was senator from Searcy.

During a legislative redistricting a decade ago, when they were leaving the Senate, Jacksonville and Searcy wound up in the same district because the people drawing the map thought of it as a tribute to their friendship.

The way the new district is drawn means that people from Searcy will probably always get to elect their senator, which is what they’ve done by picking John Paul Capps for the Senate after his long service in the House.

But when Bill first ran for the Senate, he “really brought this community together like it hadn’t been in a long time. Our community has benefited from that ever since,” said Larry Wilson, the Jacksonville banker whose family competed with the Gwatneys’ bank until it was sold to Union National Bank several years ago.

Bill later served on the board of directors of First Arkansas Bank, which is owned by the Wilsons. He also supported American Legion baseball, the Jacksonville Boys and Girls Club and other causes, and although he moved from Jacksonville to Little Rock, he’d always tell his friends here that he missed his hometown, and he’d ask them, “How are things in Jacksonville?”

Funeral services will be held at 2 p.m. Monday at Pulaski Heights Methodist Church in Little Rock.

Visitation is from 2-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. Sunday at Griffin Leggett Rest Hills Funeral Home in North Little Rock.