In 1978, William Jefferson Clinton was elected governor of Arkansas after serving as the state’s attorney general for two years. At 32, he was Arkansas’ second-youngest governor, after John Selden Roane, who served from 1849-1852.
When Clinton lost the 1980 election to Frank White, a national recession, natural disasters and rioting by Cuban refugees at Fort Chaffee were contributing factors, according to information on the website of the Arkansas secretary of state. According to an essay by Ernest Dumas in the Central Arkansas Library System Encyclopedia of Arkansas, White blamed Clinton for the threat to public safety that the Cubans represented and for higher vehicle license fees, which were “particularly unpopular.”
But Clinton again ran for governor and won back the office in 1982, adding to the inspiration for the nickname he would eventually adopt: “the comeback kid.”
On this Page 1 of the Nov. 3 Arkansas Gazette, John Brummett wrote that Clinton’s win meant “avenging his stunning loss of two years ago and becoming the first man in Arkansas history to regain the governorship after having been voted out of it.” In his victory speech, Clinton rejoiced in a “second chance to serve the people.”
White and Clinton spent a combined $3 million in the most expensive governor’s race then on record. In a race where the key issues boiled down to unemployment and utility rates, both candidates’ television and radio ads, “the tone of which was clearly the most negative ever in Arkansas,” didn’t sit well with many voters; but “the drama of the personal rematch between the two men seemed to capture their imagination,” Brummett wrote.
Brummett noted that Clinton also overcame “an image his critics characterized as overly ambitious, insensitive and arrogant.” The former governor admitted that he had made mistakes during his first term, namely using car tag fees to raise money for highways and commuting more than 60 prison sentences.
On Nov. 4, the Gazette editorial page asserted that “the return of Bill Clinton is one of the great personal triumphs in Arkansas’s political history.”
“The election of Clinton as governor should portend forward movement for the state,” the editorial continued, also suggesting that “White’s term was essentially an aberration, a blip on the screen of history resulting from the Reagan landslide of 1980 and from certain misfortunes that befell Clinton in his first term.” He also noted that White’s campaign for re-election “suggested that he was less interested in innovative programs than in just being governor, a role that he enjoyed wonderfully.”
Clinton was re-elected to the state’s highest office in 1984, 1986 (during which term the governor’s tenure was extended to four years), and 1990, becoming the second longest-serving Arkansas governor after Orval Faubus.
Clinton would go on to become the 42nd President of the United States, serving two terms from 1993-2001.
— Jeanne Dahl
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