Arkansas' Democratic Party luminaries and political junkies filled the first floor of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies on Friday evening, swapping tales from a shared history as people reminisced on Bill Clinton's successful presidential campaigns.
The event was the second time that many members of the Arkansas Travelers, a group of longtime supporters of the Clintons, have all gotten together, said Sheila Galbraith Bronfman, who heads the Travelers.
In 1991, she and Skip Rutherford -- now the dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service -- approached Bill Clinton about how to deploy hundreds of his friends and admirers. They were doctors, lawyers, and housewives who wanted to campaign but couldn't take a year off, Bronfman said.
So they traveled, on their own dime, to hand out pamphlets, ring doorbells and yell "like banshees" in 26 states, Bronfman said.
The Travelers campaigned again in 1996, then in 2008 and 2016 when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her presidential bids. The group earned a mention in her new book, What Happened.
About 18 of the Travelers have participated in all four campaigns, Bronfman said.
"We have a helluva history," she said, a saxophone pin adorning her collar.
More than 600 people can call themselves Arkansas Travelers, Bronfman said. Celebrating the 25-year anniversary of Bill Clinton's first presidential election is akin to a "high school reunion," she said. But instead of riding school buses, they forged bonds in passenger vans.
"You can't live in a van with somebody for seven days," Bronfman said. "You're either going to love him or hate him."
Former Bigelow resident Sergio L. De Leon -- now a justice of the peace in Fort Worth -- remembered cramming 70 people into his modest house during Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign.
"It was just unreal," he said. "We moved every piece of furniture out into the carport."
The reunion of Travelers and others in the Clintons' orbit came the day before Bill and Hillary Clinton will speak at the Statehouse Convention Center as part of the Frank and Kula Kumpuris distinguished lecture series.
At 4:30 p.m. today, the Clintons, along with political strategist James Carville, will reflect on the 1992 campaign that Carville helped manage, their eight years in the White House and their decades as public servants, according to a news release.
At Friday's gathering, donations were raised for the Bill Clinton State Government Project. The effort educates the public about Arkansas' governorship by making letters, books, images and interviews from 1966 to 1993 available to scholars and the public.
The Butler Center houses most of Bill Clinton's gubernatorial records, said Bobby Roberts, former director of the Central Arkansas Library System. Roberts worked on and off for Bill Clinton while he was governor from 1979 to 1981, and again from 1983 to 1992.
Roberts said two unopened 15-pound boxes of documents from that era, passed along to him through a friend, are taking up space in his living room. He and his wife are eager to get them in the hands of archivists.
"It's time I think, after 25 years, for the historians to take over," Roberts said.
Knowing Bill Clinton's work as governor is key to understanding his presidential legacy, Roberts said.
"Coming from a poor state, a poorly educated state, I think he understood what education can do for everyone," Roberts said.
Friday was an opportunity to relive happy times. Memories of all the difficult work "seem to disappear as you get older," Roberts said.
"This is a reunion of heart and soul," said former U.S. Sen. David Pryor, who represented Arkansas from 1979 until 1997.
Though the power of the Democratic Party has waned in Arkansas in recent years, it's only temporary, Pryor said.
"It's just a matter of time," he said.
Several well-wishers approached Pryor to ask about his health -- he suffered a stroke in Oct. 2016. Pryor assured two women that he was feeling much better.
A spread of catered barbecue sandwiches and finger food was laid out for the hundreds of attendees. Musicians thumped a drum kit and piano while reels of old campaign speeches and rallies played on large screens.
Friday's reunion "brings back wonderful memories," said former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, who was lieutenant governor during Bill Clinton's first presidential push and succeeded him as governor after Clinton left for the White House.
Tucker said that in choosing to place his presidential library in the River Market District, Clinton helped build confidence in what downtown Little Rock could eventually offer.
"People walk without fear," Tucker said, before spying a familiar face in the crowd.
"Excuse me," he said. "I have to hug somebody."
Former U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, son of David Pryor, said he admired the Clintons because "there's never really been a couple like them."
Mark Pryor said Bill and Hillary Clinton have been "aunt and uncle" figures to him. He got to know Hillary Clinton better when they sat beside each other on the Senate's Armed Services Committee. Hillary Clinton was twice elected to the Senate in New York.
"I saw her in action. She was the most prepared," he said.
Though Friday's event peered into Arkansas' political past, attendees also discussed the state's future.
David Bailin, an art instructor at the University of Central Arkansas, was a "Traveler" on both Bill and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaigns. He remembered knocking on doors, not knowing who would answer, all in the name of a candidate who "invigorated" him.
Now, after President Donald Trump's election, Bailin said he's focusing on shaking up the U.S. Congress.
But also, he said, "I'm waiting for Chelsea."
Sheila Galbraith Bronfman (right), who heads the collection of longtime Bill Clinton supporters known as the Arkansas Travelers, visits with a fellow member Friday at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. “We have a helluva history,” she said.
Metro on 11/18/2017
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