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front&center: Robbie Wills

Speaker-elect follows winding path to Legislature

By Tammy Keith

This article was published February 24, 2008 at 4:15 a.m.

— District 46 State Rep. Robbie Wills drove up in his Jeep Cherokee, with two ladders strapped on top, running late. He was wearing a dark-blue suit and holding a bottle of Diet Mountain Dew in one hand and a leather portfolio in the other.

The 39-year-old speaker of the House-elect had chores to do after an interview at his law office in Conway. There were light bulbs to replace and storm-damage repairs to make to his storage units out back.

"There are some little things I've been putting off - I'm going to do them today," he said. After he changed out of his suit, of course.

How many speakers of the House-elect does it take to change a light bulb?

"In this case, just one," Wills said, laughing.

Becoming an attorney - a path he didn't start until he was 31 - was a desire that had been building since high school. The public-servant part came when "I had one of those epiphanies" while standing in line to vote in a presidential race.

Wills prefers to use the word "public servant" for a reason.

"I'm an attorney and a politician - and for some people, that's as low as you can go," he said.

Wills said he briefly considered being a history teacher, but one class changed his mind.

"Sue Alread, my legal systems teacher, did a mock trial, and I was one of the lawyers," he said. Wills, who played the prosecutor, thinks he won the case.

Alread, who is retired and lives in Conway, said,"That's right. I remember him as a student. I did two mock trials a year for I don't know how many years. He was a really neat kid to teach because he was so interested. Legal systems was a good class to teach, because it was an elective, and that's a leg up right there. He really got interested in it and did a real good job," she said.

Wills, the son of two public school teachers, loved playing the role of litigator, but didn't seriously consider a law career.

"I didn't think law school was a realistic goal," he said.

His father, Robert Wills, teaches history at Conway High School-East. His mother, Lou Jane, teaches science at Mayflower Middle School.

Wills went to UCA and ended up in radio-TV. "Incollege, I thought I wanted to be a journalist," he said. "We did a show called Conway After Hours on Channel 6, which was horrible," he said. "We did all the writing, and I ended up being the host. I was the David Letterman," he said. "It was not funny at all, actually," he recalled, laughing.

Wills also played bass in a band, which he also had done in high school.

"That was back when I had hair," he said.

The band in college was Crimson Tear, and he wrote his own songs.

He still has his guitars, and he said other House members are musicians, too. "Occasionally we'll have a little ad-hoc jam session," he said.

Wills was one of the founding members of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity at UCA.

After graduation, he took a job as regional director with the national fraternity. He traveled throughout the Southeast and collected dues, membership premiums and did leadership development. "I loved it," he said. It was a tough life, though. "I lived out a suitcase for 11 months," he said. "I had an apartment in Richmond, Va., and I hit the road in my Honda Accord."

It was by design a one-year position, and then he was recruited by the Boy Scouts to be a district executive. Among his duties were recruiting and fundraising, "heavy on the fundraising," he said. Wills, who moved to Louisiana for the job, attended the summer Scout camps, "which I wasn't told was part of the job, but it was the part I enjoyed the most," he said.

He left there to take a job in sales for a company based in Alabama that published magazines and coffee-table books. He moved to Conway and traveled all over the country.

The last one he sold profiles for was Conway - A Story of Its People.

He still hadn't found his niche.

His desire to get into public service came from an experience he had voting in the presidential election in 1996.

"I went to First Presbyterian Church and was standing in line to vote. People were complaining about who was on the ballot. I thought, 'Good people ought to run if they can.' I had one of those epiphanies."

He got sidetracked by jobs to pay the bills, but in 1998 decided to jump into politics.

"I gravitated to the state Legislature. I literally went to the library and checked out a book How to Run for Office. Chapter One was 'Call all your friends and get support.'" So that's what Wills did.

The most involved he had been in a campaign was to help make signs for the late Bill Wright, who was Faulkner County judge and mayor of Conway.

Wills ran as a Democrat against the Republican Marvin Parks and lost in a close race.

"It was Marvin's time. I honestly thought I'd missed my opportunity for public service. I decided to take the LSAT," Wills said.

Two years later, at 31, he started to law school with his wife, Dana's, blessing.

"It was scary. Dana and I had gotten married the year before. She was very encouraging. It was something I wanted to do since high school," he said.

"It turned out this was my life's work."

He worked at First State Bank and Acxiom Corp. while taking night classes at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Bowen School of Law.

He was encouraged to run for a seat on the Faulkner County Quorum Court, which he won.

"I waded right into the middle of the big jail debate," Wills said.

Some justices of the peace wanted to build another facility on the courthouse lawn. Wills wanted a "long-term" plan and thought property should be purchased elsewhere. The economy was strong and a half-cent sales tax had been approved by voters even without a plan.

Although the Quorum Court voted to build at the current courthouse site, the fight wasn't over. A push was made for a referendum, and county residents voted they did not want another jail at the courthouse.

Wills was named chairman of the Jail Task Force, which met for months to oversee the plans and building of the jail, which is on South German Lane in Conway.

That experience was invaluable, he said, for his future political career.

Wills served as a law clerk for Nate Coulter in Little Rock.

"Working for Nate Coulter gave me the confidence I could run my own office," Wills said.

His last semester of law school, in 2004, he announced he was running for state representative - this time against then UCAvice president John Smith.

Wills recalled he also had fallen off a ladder and cracked two ribs, "caught the worse cold I've ever had" and was studying to pass the bar.

He apparently was clear-headed when he took the test - he made the top score. "I think the good Lord was telling me this is what I needed to do," Wills said.

"I hung my shingle out and went to work on the campaign," he said.

"I made a lot of mistakes when I ran the first time. In my first campaign, it was more about what I thought should happen - 'Elect me, and I'll make all your decisions.' The Quorum Court helped me become closer to constituents. I spent a lot more time listening in the second campaign," he said.

"I was the underdog, which I love. We put together a wellorganized campaign," he said, and won 53-47 percent.

It's a little different than serving on the Quorum Court.

"Serving in the Legislature is a bigger stage and the issues are bigger. The numbers are larger."

"It's a luxury to be in Faulkner County so close to the capital city," he said. He's close to constituents. "People who want to talk to me can get ahold of me."

Wills emphasized that won't change now that he's speaker of the House-elect.

There were seven interested in the position at first, and it got down to two - Wills and Rep. David Dunn, D-Forrest City. Wills said he had 67 out of 100 members committed to him and Dunn dropped out.

"I thought that was very leaderly of him," Wills said.

Wills received 98 votes. "You can't make everybody happy," he said, shrugging.

"I want to bring back statesmanship and bring back dignity."

Wills said his slogan as JP still holds true: "Doing the right things the right way."

Wills said when he decided to go for speaker of the House, he told members, "Watch me." He welcomed the scrutiny. And he did a lot of listening.

"I'd drive to Benton ... Texarkana to find out what the issues are in their district," he said.

"It's more like running for class president in a high school that's as big as the state," he said.

"My whole campaign for speaker, my whole reason for running for speaker, was to raise the level of leadership in the chamber in a direction that would raise public trust and confidence," he said.

"The thing people don't understand about the Legislature is it's very much based on relationships between members, and respect."

Respected members who have "done their homework will get bill passed easier," he said.

"The atmosphere I'm trying to create is having disagreement on a bill today and working on a bill tomorrow without repercussions," he said.

"I use my legal training every day in the Legislature to interpret a bill ... lawyers get a bad rap, and I get kidded a lot, but they (representatives) come to me and say, 'Is this OK?' Having a few lawyers is helpful to the membership."

Wills, in his second term, said experience matters.

"I won't guarantee you'll get everything you need, but if UCA has an issue they need addressed, I feel I'll be able to get the issue addressed and the problem mediated, or CHDC or AETN."

As speaker of the House, Wills will be naming all the committee leaders.

"I'm in a year-long evaluation phase now. I'm sitting down and meeting with every member coming back, asking "What doyou like to do? Who do you perceive is the leader in that area?' My main concern is getting the leadership in place - finding people with similar interests. Folks who are into education, I want them in the same room. Health care, I want them planning now."

Wills will assign bills to various committees, and "that could be significant," he said.

With the Lakeview School District lawsuit decided, Wills said "this is the first session where our creative energy can be directed at some other issue."

"Before, we were working to satisfy the Supreme Court. I feel like we've created a template, and we can use our creative juices for transportation, health care and some other areas."

Wills said over the next 20 years, there are $20 billion in needs that have been identified by the transportation department.

"However, we've only identified $4 billion in funding. That's a huge shortfall," he said.

He believes Gov. Mike Beebe is looking at a severance tax on natural gas as a way to get new revenue.

"Coming up with $16 billion in the next 20 years is frustrating, so you have to prioritize. People in Northwest Arkansas say a sixlane I-540 is the biggest priority. People in the River Valley feel a six-lane interstate between Conway and Little Rock is the biggest priority. That's the challenge for the Highway Commission. It's going to be a huge challenge for the Legislature."

Wills said he doesn't know how he would vote on a severance-tax increase.

"I don't have a bill in front of me to judge," he said. "I don't think we should put ourselves in a position where we're taking more - with all forms of taxation, property, sales tax ... all forms - more than Oklahoma. Somewhere is a magic number. I don't know where that is," Wills said, adding that Oklahoma and Texas have production incentives that Arkansas doesn't.

"It's a very complicated issue. It doesn't lend itself to a ballot issue like Sheffield Nelson wants ... I think his heart's in the right place."

Wills said his heart is in being an attorney and a public servant right now.

What about further public service when his term is finished?

"I've always looked one step ahead, and I need to do a very good job as speaker of the House, and if the good Lord has other plans, he'll let me know.

"That's my answer," he said, laughing. "I plan to run for reelection this year."

River Valley Ozark, Pages 132, 133, 134 on 02/24/2008

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