Arkansans Find Convention Bittersweet

By: - August 26, 2008 12:00 am

DENVER Long before a gunman fatally shot Bill Gwatney on Aug. 13, the chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party had asked that the soulful 1979 tune “We are Family” be played at the daily breakfast meetings of the state delegation to the Democratic National Convention.

On Monday, Gwatney’s request was honored as the 53 delegates and alternates filed into a ballroom at a south Denver hotel for their first breakfast. Gwatney’s widow, Rebecca, who took his place as a superdelegate, was among them.

“I’m taking this 30 minutes at a time,” she told delegate Karen Garcia.

Of all the state delegations to the convention, Arkansas ‘ is hurting the most. Their pain began when Hillary Rodham Clinton lost the Democratic presidential nomination; Arkansas had been hoping for another Clinton in the White House.

But nothing prepared the party for the horror of Aug. 13 when a 50-year-old Searcy , Ark., man entered the state Democratic Party headquarters in Little Rock and killed Gwatney. Police later killed the gunman. They have not established a motive.

Gwatney, a former state senator who would have celebrated his 49 th birthday during the convention, was to lead the state’s delegation in Denver . Instead vice chairman Karla Bradley was thrust into that role.

“This is best said by his choice of music,” she said. “We are a family. We’re a small state. We are connected in so many ways. There’s no doubt this has been sad.”

Gwatney, who owned three General Motors dealerships, was a friend of the Clintons , who came to his funeral.

“He should have been at my funeral, not the other way around,” said Clinton, who turned 62 on Aug. 19. The Clintons have said they would drop by Arkansas ‘ party tonight (Aug. 26), which is a tribute to Gwatney – complete with a band from Little Rock .

The delegates will remember Gwatney in other ways. Each night of the convention they will wear “Gwat-zilla” buttons. That was his nickname, not that he was a tyrant.

“He was the best chairman we’ve ever had,” said Garcia, the party treasurer.

U.S. Rep. Mike Ross told the delegates that although “this is an exciting week to be a Democrat,” the convention will be subdued for Arkansas because of Gwatney’s death and Hillary Clinton ‘s loss. In a dig at the convention planners’ decision to locate Arkansas in a relatively remote hotel, Ross said Hillary Clinton’s “biggest victory in America was in Arkansas with 70 percent of the vote. And we get a hotel an hour away.”

Several of the Arkansans said the ultimate tribute to Gwatney would be to put his death behind them and concentrate on electing Barack Obama on Nov. 4. “Anyone who beats the Clintons , you better not underestimate him,” Ross said of the Illinois senator.

Like many Hillary Clinton supporters, Gwatney was a superdelegate pledged to the New York senator but switched to Obama after Clinton pulled out of the race.

“I ask you to remember the reasons that you began supporting the Clintons ,” Gwatney wrote on his blog. “We support Barack Obama for the same reasons.”

At the funeral, Gwatney’s brother Russell compared his brother to the Charlie Brown character in the “Peanuts” comic strip. Gwatney, his brother said, often said, “Nobody loves me.”

You wouldn’t believe that sitting among the Arkansas Democrats on Monday.


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Stephen Fehr

Stephen Fehr is a senior officer with Pew’s government performance portfolio. He is a lead writer on many of the products generated by the portfolio, specializing in state and local fiscal health.