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story.lead_photo.caption Jackson T. “Steve” Stephens made headlines for trying to stop a ballot effort to raise the state’s minimum wage. - Photo by Staton Breidenthal

Flying an airplane and trading securities are two things Steve Stephens could never quite get a handle on.

Stephens, born Jackson T. Stephens Jr., left Stephens Inc. after a decade to pursue other interests, eventually turning his business attention to medical-related investments. He likens the experience to learning to fly.

"I've learned over the years unless I'm really focused on something, I better drop it," the 62-year-old Stephens said. "I sometimes take up something and think I'm better at it than I am. My days in the securities business taught me that. If I didn't trade full time, the losses mounted quick. I learned that. Just like I learned I don't want to be my own pilot."

Stephens, who inherited $40.9 million from his father, for whom he's named, Jack Stephens, in 2010, has had no such reservations about participating in what could be viewed as the family's other business: conservative politics.

Members of the Stephens family have been at or near the top of the state's political donor lists for decades. Politics -- and the art of using finances to gain influence -- were lessons Steve Stephens learned early in life. He served as a page in the state Legislature for his uncle Witt Stephens, and some of his earliest memories growing up include conversations with politicians ranging from county sheriffs to presidents.

Far more recently Stephens made headlines for filing a lawsuit to stop the effort to raise the minimum wage in Arkansas. Stephens also is involved nationally with the Club for Growth, serving as chairman of the board for the conservative political advocacy group.

Less public than the minimum-wage lawsuit was Stephens' influence in the rise of U.S. Sen.-elect Tom Cotton. When the two met in 2012, Stephens recalled, he immediately thought Cotton had a bright future in politics. Stephens joked he had to stop himself from demanding the Club for Growth support Cotton as a candidate.

Instead he made his interest in Cotton known but let the club's process for vetting and selecting candidates play out as intended.

For Cotton, Stephens is something of a kindred spirit when it comes to policy and principle.

"Steve stands on principle. He's a man of integrity. ... Steve always is going to stand up for what he thinks is right," Cotton said. "That's what I've always tried to do not only in the House of Representatives but throughout my life. Sometimes it doesn't always win you the favor of everyone, but I think many people respect someone who will stand on principle and is a man of integrity, even if they don't see eye to eye with you on every policy."

The minimum-wage fight

Cotton's victory was a big win for Stephens, who also experienced moderate success in areas such as his fight to repeal the state's grocery tax in 2002. It has been whittled down over the years from 6 percent in 2002 to 1.5 percent in 2011.

Stephens' fight against the minimum-wage increase, however, did not work. Arkansans overwhelmingly passed the minimum-wage initiative, which will increase earnings from $6.25 per hour to $8.50 by January 2017. There were few opponents, but Stephens said he felt strongly about opposing it because he says an increase wouldn't have the effect proponents promised.

"There's no mystery as to why an increase was popular. Everybody understands," Stephens said. "A 2006 buck ain't, it's not, a 2014 dollar. You've got to have more buying power today than you have in 2006."

Stephens, though, points to the last time the minimum wage was increased and what little effect it had on unemployment rates. Youth unemployment is virtually unchanged since 2006, and Stephens says unemployment among "black youth" has risen from 29 percent to 39 percent over the past eight years.

"A minimum wage increase isn't the answer," Stephens said, pointing to improved education in Arkansas and more pro-business policies as keys in changing the unemployment rates. These are issues he's fought for as a founding member of the Arkansas Policy Foundation.

Founded in 1995, the Arkansas Policy Foundation, through the Murphy Commission, has called for changes ranging from repealing the state's tour bus tax to major overhauls of the state's public education and public retirement systems.

An undercurrent to Stephens' minimum-wage fight was a distrust with the way the state's Supreme Court handled the lawsuit he filed. Stephens said he now sees the need to fight for judicial review, a cause he'll champion locally and nationally with the Club for Growth.

Stephens isn't involved in day-to-day Club for Growth operations. He has given millions to the organization and its causes and has been instrumental in setting a tone for the board and outlining expectations for the club.

Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said Stephens often comes across as the smartest guy in the room. Not in a negative way, though, Chocola was quick to add. Most of Chocola's dealings with Stephens are related to politics and policy. Beyond those areas he doesn't know much about the club board's chairman.

"He's a very bright guy. He knows a lot about the financial world, a lot about economics," Chocola said. "He's got a health care company he's working on. I don't pretend to know what it is. ... He's got a lot of interest. All my dealings with him, he knows more about everything than I do, but he's the last guy to tell you how smart he is. He is very low-key. Relatively soft-spoken. Very humble. He's not going to, he's not going to try to impress you much. He is who he is."

"I don't know the full range of his interests or business activities and other organizations," Chocola added. "I do have great respect and admiration for him. He's trying to figure out ways to move us in a prosperous direction."

Investing interests

Stephens' primary business seems to be politics, but he does have securities holdings -- he pays someone to handle them for him -- and he's an investor in bio-tech and medical-related businesses.

Exoxemis Inc., a bio-pharmaceutical research and development company currently has a spray approved for a double-blind Food and Drug Administration study to determine whether it's fit for production. Stephens thinks it could be a game-changer to prevent infections from occurring after colorectal surgeries. At one point Exoxemis was working with the FDA for approval on a spray intended to kill the AIDS virus. It was "neither a cure nor a vaccine," but "protection against contracting the disease."

Interest in science developed late for Stephens, who said he was a C student in high school chemistry. Both the scientific research and the fight for pro-business policies are handled with "a purely empirical approach," Stephens said.

"I like what works. I tend to discard what doesn't," said Stephens, a Hendrix College graduate with degrees in accounting and economics. "That's pretty much my philosophy. Certainly in my [policy work] that's how I've tried to influence the organizations I work with."

It is Stephens' political and policy efforts that are what he is most known for, though not everyone seems willing to speak on his behalf.

Y0unger brother Warren, 57, who was given control of Stephens Inc. by their father, "politely declined" an interview request through a spokesman. Madison Murphy, active in the Arkansas Policy Foundation and, like Stephens, active in conservative political circles, said he would prefer not to discuss his long-time acquaintance.

"I haven't had much contact with him of late," Murphy said. "Certainly, we have worked closely together on some issues in the past."

Like-minded conservatives are, not surprisingly, fans of Stephens' work. Brenda Vassaur Taylor is co-founder of the Conduit for Commerce, a group focused on small business policy in Arkansas, and an an advocate of Stephens' push for less government and fewer taxes.

Taylor called Stephens one of the state's "many great assets."

"We are admirers of Steve due to his decades of work to advance economic freedom in Arkansas and our nation," Taylor said. "We became acquainted through CFC's relationship with the Arkansas Policy Foundation."

Not everybody is enamored with Stephens or the Club for Growth. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is again considering a presidential run, could not be reached for comment. His feud with Stephens dates back to 2001 when Stephens once contemplated a run for governor. The Club for Growth campaigned against Huckabee during the 2008 presidential election.

Huckabee has not been shy about his dislike of the Club for Growth or, as he calls it, the "Club for Greed."

"If you think it's personal, you are right," Politico quoted Huckabee saying last year during a radio spot spent discussing the Club for Growth.

As Stephens battles with Huckabee, his role as a villain in the fight for raising the state's minimum wage and any criticisms that might come his way are fine by him. Holding office hasn't been in the cards for Stephens. He pulled out of the 2002 race before it began, but funded an exploratory committee looking for challengers to Huckabee.

There are no regrets about not running for governor, Stephens said. His influence in local and national political circles is far greater than he might have enjoyed as governor.

"I really like the role that I can play," Stephens said. "How many people in this world have the opportunity to chair an effective organization like the Club for Growth? It's a genuine honor and I think that has satisfied me, and I can do much more than just be a vote. ... I think I can do more the way I've done it."

SundayMonday Business on 11/16/2014

Print Headline: Steve Stephens lets his political moves take care of business

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  • RestoftheStory
    November 16, 2014 at 4:13 p.m.

    Raising the Minimum Wage hurts you because you guarantee yourself immediate price increases that will offset the wage increase. The minimum wage will only help high school kids anyway. Why would they need a raise?
    Another basic principle is for employers to simply make you a salaried employee. If you are on a salary, you won't get overtime, but you will work over 40 hours. Employers will always be one step ahead of unskilled employees, and that is the way it should be. If you want a raise, get some training at a technical school or university. By earning your raise, you will know you did it the right way.