FORT SMITH - Conner Eldridge won’t be doing this forever.
Eldridge is the United States attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, the youngest of the 93 U.S. attorneys in the country. He’s 35, and in all likelihood, someone else will be doing his job before he turns 40.
Although there are exceptions, the majority of U.S. attorneys tend to turn over after a new president is inaugurated. So had November’s presidential election gone differently, Eldridge might have moved on to his next career already.
“Obviously, there was a lot of uncertainty going into the presidential election,” Eldridge says in his office. “I’m just glad I was able to keep my job. … I love this job. I’m not in a hurry to go anywhere else, but at some point I’ll have to.”
There’s an irony, Eldridge notes, in the nature of his work. He was appointed to the position in 2010 by a Democratic president, Barack Obama, after being recommended by Arkansas’ U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor and then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln, also Democrats.
Yet the work itself is nonpolitical. It’s the reason he had to give up his involvement with several nonprofit organizations, to avoid even the slightest hint that he and his office were focused on anything but providing justice in the 34 counties that make up the state’s Western District.
“He’s got a great love for the Western District of Arkansas, for the people, and he has a passion for the state,” says Wendy Johnson of Ozark, an assistant U.S. attorney for the district. “He really enjoys the office and what our mission is.”
In a sense, the fact that the position of U.S. attorney comes with an end date is disappointing, because Eldridge loves what he’s doing. But it’s also freeing, because he can throw himself into his work with little worry that he’ll burn out from the intensity of it.
His office prosecutes about 1,200 cases a year, around 300 of them criminal cases. The Western District has one of the smaller offices in the country, so Eldridge is able to prosecute a handful of cases himself, something the vast majority of U.S. attorneys are unable to do.
“It definitely keeps you moving, but it’s great work,” he says. “It’s easy to be passionate about the work with the nature of what we do, which is doing the right thing in every case, bringing good cases, charging people who ought to be charged with a crime and prosecuting them to the fullest of our ability - doing justice in all things we do.”
Eldridge’s work takes him all over his district, where he works with local leaders to identify what their criminal problems are and assembles teams of local, state and federal officers to target those issues. This is the real joy of his job, the knowledge that his work is having an effect all over his beloved home state.
“He loves going to all these different towns,” says his wife of 10 years, Mary Elizabeth Eldridge. “He’ll call on the way home, and if he’s spent the day in Texarkana, he’ll say, ‘I love Texarkana! We could have a great home there.’ Or he’ll say the same thing driving home [after working in]Mountain Home.
“This job is a blend of issues that are important to him, that he gets to pursue while working with local communities.”
On Monday mornings, Eldridge often arrived at Lonoke High School with the Sunday New York Times.
The Sunday Times was a big deal in Eldridge’s family. His grandfather, John Tull, has long driven from Lonoke to Little Rock to pick up the Sunday Times, and after he read it, he would pass it on to his teenage grandson.
A voracious reader and a serious news follower as a young man, Eldridge would devour the newspaper that night, and take whatever was left over to school with him on Monday.
“When he wanted to learn something, he was very dedicated to that,” says Eldridge’s mother, Mary Baker of Raymond, Miss. “He was always interested in a lot of things.”
The oldest of three children, Eldridge was born in Fayetteville. (His given name is William Conner Eldridge Jr., but he has gone by Conner his entire life.)
He spent the early part of his childhood in Augusta, a small town in Woodruff County. His parents divorced when he was in sixth grade, and he moved with his mother to Lonoke.
It was a childhood filled with lots of freedom, his mom says, and Eldridge made the most of it. He spent lots of time on the White River and never passed up an opportunity to read, be it the Sunday Times, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, or any good book, fiction and nonfiction.
“It was great to grow up in small-town Arkansas,” he says. “That small-town feel that you have is something that you carry with you your whole life. It’s a real sense of community, that ‘We’re in this together.’”
Eldridge’s family owned a farm in Lonoke, and Conner often worked on it during summers. His first job was loading bean hoppers “when a sack of soybeans weighed more than I did,” and he often toiled from sunup to sundown. His family insisted upon that sort of effort.
The people who know him say that Eldridge is an intensely hard-working individual. He’s determined to master whatever he’s working on, but even once he’s got it down, he keeps the effort level high.
“He’s worked hard at everything he’s ever done,” Mary Elizabeth says. “He always wants to do his very best, and if there’s one thing Conner’s got a real gift for, it’s that he’s able to pick up on things very quickly - whatever he’s learning.”
Eldridge graduated near the top of his high school class. He was a decent basketball player and a very good golfer, having learned the game as a youngster from his father.
Conner won a state golf championship at Lonoke, and went on to play the sport at Davidson College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English. Davidson is in North Carolina, and the four years he spent there - plus the brief periods he spent in Washington, both during college and after it - were the only times he has ever lived outside Arkansas.
With his impressive resume, there would be opportunities for Eldridge in any state. The office of U.S. attorney is often a springboard to bigger things, and undoubtedly he’ll have chances to move elsewhere when he’s done with the job.
Whether he would actually take one of those offers, though, is uncertain.
“That would be a tough pull for me,” he says. “I love this state so much. There’s something special to me about living in this state and getting to do what I do.”
When he needs advice, Eldridge never lacks for options.
Long before he had cracked open his first newspaper, both sides of his family were filled with people who had a deep interest in the world, locally and nationally. In particular, there was his grandfather, Tull, who worked with the Clinton administration and remains a towering figure in Eldridge’s life.
“My father used to have a U.S. map on his wall, and every night at dinner he would discuss a different state when we lived with them,’’ for nearly a year after Eldridge’s parents split up,” Baker says. “My side of the family is very political. I’m kind of a news junkie, so Conner got that way growing up.”
After working on Lincoln’s victorious 1998 Senate campaign, Eldridge worked as a legislative correspondent for her in Washington, then was hired as a legislative assistant to U.S. Rep. Marion Berry.
In 2000, he returned to Arkansas and enrolled at the University of Arkansas School of Law. Three years later, he graduated and went to clerk for U.S. District Judge Thomas Eisele, of the Eastern District of Arkansas.
“That was an incredible experience,” Eldridge says. “Judge Eisele is the epitome of a fair and impartial judge, just a great man dedicated to doing the right thing. That shaped me in a lot of ways.”
When Eldridge’s clerkship ended in 2004, his father-in law asked him to come on board at Summit Bank, the family’s banking interests.Eldridge hesitated at first because he lacked business experience, but ended up saying yes.
For the next seven years, the Eldridges lived in his wife’s hometown of Arkadelphia, and Eldridge worked in a series of positions for Summit Bank. He enjoyed meeting with people from around the region, going into small-town drugstores and sawmills and doctors’ clinics, and seeing firsthand how business worked.
“He’s very smart and capable, both smart in a book sense and then in a people sense,” says Summit Bank senior Vice President Franklin Bass of Hot Springs, a longtime friend. “He uses both those skills to get where he is.
“He’s a younger guy who’s had a lot of success, so it’s easy for a lot of people to question that, but Conner’s hard work and ethics, along with his smarts, quickly ease people’s questions about [whether he] was qualified for the role he was in.”
What he learned in banking has proved valuable as a U.S. attorney. He says his office has made it a priority to prosecute not just people who have committed crimes, but those who have profited from them, as well.
Cases involving fraud and drugs, and often those that deal with child pornography, usually have a financial component. Having some knowledge of the flow of money is critical.
“We’ve worked on complicated white-collar crimes, and that background has helped tremendously,” Johnson says.
LEAVING WORK BEHIND
Eldridge has never been afraid of a challenge.
At the time of his U.S. attorney nomination, Eldridge had courtroom experience, thanks to his time clerking. He understood how to prepare cases for trial, the mechanics of how cases proceeded.
What he needed to strengthen were his prosecutorial skills. So he stepped back from the bank and became a special deputy prosecutor in Clark County, which he did for a year.
It was a learning experience, as were his early days as U.S. attorney.
“He’s a quick study, and he puts the time in,” Johnson says. “He’s vested in the office.
“He makes a real effort to work hard, and it’s like anything in life; if you work hard, you’ll gain an understanding [of the job], and gain the respect of others.”
Eldridge sits on the Department of Justice’s Domestic Terrorism Committee, working with people around the country “to make sure we don’t have another Oklahoma City” bombing. This work brings him up close with some pretty terrifying individuals, he says, just as alot of the cases his office handles do.
But he’s determined not to let the ugliness of some people’s actions affect him. He makes time to exercise most days of the week, whether it’s biking, running or lifting weights. Eldridge completed his first half-marathon last year, but says that rather than advancing to full marathons, he’d rather improve his time for shorter races.
That speaks to his competitive nature, but also his desire to spend time with his wife and three sons, ages 6, 2 and 1. His house is a crazy one, he says, but lots of fun, and he’s up for whatever interests his boys that day.
Eldridge’s days are long. The family recently moved to Fayetteville, so he’s got a one-hour commute to his office, and he routinely is spending several hours a day in his car to meet with local law enforcement in a district that stretches from Benton County to Ashley County. Sometimes the work requires him to spend the night away from home.
When he returns, he’s all about the boys, his wife says. Not the cases, not the district, not the future.
“He’s so creative with the kids,” Mary Elizabeth says. “That’s a side of Conner that not everyone sees. He’s the one who gets down on the floor, builds the tents, goes on outdoor adventures. To me, one of the best aspects of who he is is the way he interacts with the boys.
“He really does leave [work] at the door. Conner is definitely a hero in their eyes.”
SELF PORTRAIT Conner Eldridge
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Sept. 9, 1977, Fayetteville
FAMILY: Wife Mary Elizabeth, sons Will, Henry, Tull
OCCUPATION: U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas
THE MOST ENTERTAINING BOOK I EVER READ WAS Seabiscuit.
MY TOP MEMORY AS A RAZORBACK SPORTS FAN IS being at War Memorial for Arkansas’ comeback win over LSU in 2002.
THE QUESTION I GET ASKED THE MOST IS “Dad, will you build me a tent?”
WHEN I’M DRIVING IN MY CAR, I LIKE TO listen to music, but I’m usually on the phone.
MY ADVICE FOR YOUNG PEOPLE CONSIDERING A CAREER IN THE LAW IS to consider how many different ways a legal education can help you do great things for others.
PEOPLE IN HIGH SCHOOL THOUGHT I WAS serious.
WHAT MY WEEKENDS ARE LIKE: lots of time outside with my three boys
SOMETHING PEOPLE WOULD BE SURPRISED TO LEARN ABOUT ME IS how easy it is for me to be goofy and laugh sometimes, often with my kids.
MY FAVORITE GOLF COURSE IS Cypress Creek Country Club in Woodruff County, my home course growing up. St. Andrews [in Scotland] is a close second.
A PHRASE TO SUM ME UP: Work hard every day to make a difference.
High Profile, Pages 38 on 07/28/2013