Front & Center: Don McSpadden

Prosecuting attorney always had political aspirations, enjoys speaking for victims

— Just 10 votes.

For a while on May 11, that’s all that separated Prosecuting Attorney Don McSpadden and his challenger, Jerrie Lee Grady.

McSpadden won the tight race with 51.8 percent of the vote. Close as that is, he’s seen closer.

“My first time running for prosecutor,” he said of his race against J.T. Skinner in 1986, “it was separated by about 1,000 votes, which is more than this last one, but then more people voted in [’86]. I got 51.7 percent.”

McSpadden, 56, said he was surprised that the race was as close as it was, but his demeanor in talking about it - or talking about just about anything else - is as cool as Steve McQueen in a leather jacket.

Spending nearly 26 years in public office - 18 of them as prosecutor for Independence, Fulton, Izard, Stone and Cleburne counties - has given McSpadden a confidence and collective calm that he applies to both his job and his campaigns.

But as low-key as McSpadden may seem on the exterior, there’s no denying his ambition. He got his first taste of politicswhen he was in first grade, he said. His brother-in-law was running for sheriff, and the young McSpadden got out on the campaign trail.

A few years later, McSpadden volunteered locally for Lyndon Johnson’s campaign.

In college, McSpadden helped start a Young Democrats group at Arkansas College (now Lyon College) and successfully ran for a justice of the peace seat in Independence County at the ripe old age of 19. At the time, he was the youngest elected official in the county. A few years later, while he was in law school at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, he ran for city attorney in his native Batesville. He campaigned while trying to finish law school.

“I graduated May 10, and the election was like May 24,” he said. “I won with about 66 percent [of the vote]. Then I got my license (to practice law) in September.” He served as city attorney until he won the prosecutor race in 1986. He spent six years as prosecutor - back then the prosecutor only served two-year terms, as opposed to the four-year terms they serve now - before taking a break from public office to work in a private practice.

But he didn’t stay away for long. In 1998, he ran again for the prosecutor’s job. Despite winning decisively, he wanted to be sure of his victory and stayed up until 4 a.m.

on election night to see the results of the ballot count.

“I’ve always wanted to wait until the last box comesin,” he said.

McSpadden enjoys politics, but he said he’s never given much thought to running for higher office because he loves being able to speak for victims.

Much of his job now involves overseeing his eight deputy prosecutors and a number of other staff members, including a victims assistance coordinator, a hot-check specialist and the drug task force. McSpadden still makes time to be in the courtroom, though.

“I try to be involved in any major cases,” he said.

While McSpadden loves life as a prosecutor, it has not always made him the most popular man in a five-county area.

His daughter Megan, who has worked tirelessly on his campaigns, said she’s learned that not everyone is always going to like her father.

“When you prosecute people, you make a lot of people mad,” she said.

Megan is the youngest of McSpadden’s three children, but she’s the one likely to follow in her father’s footsteps. A junior at the University of Central Arkansas, Megan shares her father’s passionfor politics and the law. She said she remembers watching her father in the courtroom when she was as young as 5 years old, but he didn’t let her see any of the harsher sides of his job.

“When I was little, I never saw the bigger cases,” she said. “I just saw the little plea cases.”

But the seed was planted, and during this most recent campaign, Megan was McSpadden’s top volunteer. She described him as a supportive father who has always striven to make time for her.

Family is important to Mc-Spadden, and being a father is something he’s had to learn for himself. His own father died when McSpadden was 5 years old, and his mother battled rheumatoid arthritis for much of his childhood. His five older siblings were instrumental in his upbringing. Megan said that makes her appreciate her father all the more.

“He came from a really poor family,” she said. “His dad died when he was 5. His two sisters really raised him and helped put him in college.”

Megan said there’s a big difference between Don McSpadden the prosecutor and Don McSpadden the family man.

“He’s a complete different person once you know him,” she said. “In the courtroom, he’s really aggressive and stern, but he’s a really loving dad.”

Another thing the father and daughter share is their love of campaign memorabilia. Mc-Spadden started collecting it as a kid, keeping as much of the LBJ buttons and stickers as he could get his hands on. As an adult, he’s expanded his collection by buying rare and/or coveted materials. The gems of his collection are campaign buttons from John Davis’ unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1924.

“I always like Harry Trumanstuff, too,” McSpadden said.

He said his most recent run for re-election was probably his toughest yet. He said he faced a lot of anti-incumbent sentiments while on the campaign trail.

“Ten to 20 percent of the people I met would tell me, ‘You’re in office, so I’m not voting for you,’” McSpadden said. “Of course, most of them would bring up Washington, D.C.,” and the issues they had with national politicians.

He was the only incumbent in Independence County to win reelection this year.

- jlemaster@ arkansasonline.commatter of fact Name: Don McSpadden Birthplace: Allen Hospital in Batesville Biggest influence: My seventh-grade teacher, Jack Wasson, who got me to study, and my eighth-grade teacher, Opal Nelson, who introduced me to Christ First job: Handing out political cards when I was probably 8 years old. My first real job was being a paper carrier for the Arkansas Democrat.

One thing you want to accomplish in life but haven’t: I would really like to set up some type of spiritual camp for homeless families so they can get back on their feet.

Three Rivers, Pages 118 on 06/20/2010