In Steve Clark's home office are two yard signs from past elections: One for governor of Arkansas, one for mayor of Fayetteville.
“[I felt] I got to do this, the state is counting on me. I thought I was doing the Lord’s work, and I was pretty good but I was cheating the things I really held dear.”
They're remnants of contests he lost. But he keeps them as ready reminders that sometimes not getting what you want is best.
Date and place of birth: March 21, 1947, Jonesboro
Family: Wife Suzanne Greichen Clark, daughters Donna Clark and Katie Clark Tennant, grandchildren A.J. Davis, 21, Jacob Davis, 19, Hannah Davis, 18, Jackson Clark Tennant, 11 and Campbell Marie Tennant, 7.
My first election was in high school for student council.
I won’t eat corn from a can, ever since I quit my college summer job canning corn in Illinois.
The best part of my job is having the privilege to work everyday to make Fayetteville a better place.
Best advice I ever received: Don’t quit.
Question I get asked the most: “Are you through with elected politics?” Yes.
Fantasy dinner guests: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Pope Francis, civil rights leader Benjamin Hooks, President Theodore Roosevelt and John Denver.
If I was stranded on a desert island, I’d have to have: my wife. Together we can face anything.
What’s always in my refrigerator: Diet Dr Pepper
My current read: The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency by James Tobin
Something you may be surprised to learn about me: I am intimidated by crowds.
A self indulgence of mine: hot dog buns.
If I had an extra hour in the day, I’d spend it with my grandchildren. They teach me.
A word to sum me up: passionate
What Clark wanted was to be governor. What he endured at his low point was a shunning by the life he left behind.
Destitute. Desperate. Death itself on his mind.
These two political losses led eventually to his appointment as president of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, what Clark calls the best job he's ever had.
"My job, when I get up in the morning, is to make Fayetteville a better place," Clark says. "That's my job. Wall Street doesn't call and ask what we've done, and I don't have to deal with 99 other people in the House [of Representatives].
"Every now and then Mayor [Lioneld] Jordan says 'Do you want to switch jobs?' and I say 'Not on your life!'"
Since Clark's arrival to the post in 2009, he's led the Fayetteville Chamber in gaining accreditation by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Jonesboro, Conway and Searcy are also accredited, but Fayetteville's accomplishment of a five-star rating is matched only by Rogers and Hot Springs, a distinction which sets those cities in the top 100 of the existing 7,077 chambers of commerce in the country.
"[Accreditation] isn't something for the faint of heart or something chambers do unless they're serious about being a great chamber," says Raymond Burns, president of the Rogers-Lowell Chamber of Commerce. "It takes a whole lot of work ... that is evaluated by an outsider and scored to say you've earned [those stars]. You're not given anything, really.
"For him to go from ground zero to accreditation in the time he has is pretty rare, uncommon."
At the start of the new year, the Fayetteville Chamber moved into the Bradbury Building, a structure on the downtown Fayetteville square acquired for $2.4 million. The Chamber will occupy the second floor while opening an innovation hub or "Fab Lab" on the ground floor, a space similar to the Launch Pad in North Little Rock, with open source technology for budding entrepreneurs: 3-D printers, CNC routers, circular saws, vinyl cutters and more.
"There's always a method to his madness," says Larry Bittle, an insurance agent who was on the committee that hired Clark. "He's always working on how this can benefit the community. I'm impressed with what he's doing with Fab Lab [as a place for] the public and upstart businesses to have a place to go and develop products or ideas."
DataFox recently named Fayetteville the third best city to found a startup.
"Steve has a strong passion to make Fayetteville a better place, it runs deep in him," says Billy Waite, owner of Dickson Street Liquor. "As president, he hit the ground running and hasn't stopped. His role at the Chamber lets him do that every day.
"He's just got this just energetic dynamic leadership style to make people want to work for him."
COUNTRY COME TO TOWN
Steve Clark's family had a history of political involvement. One family member or another held the same seat in the Arkansas Senate for 52 consecutive years, his great-uncle was lieutenant governor for 20 years, and his father was a city councilman.
Even still, Clark's first impressions of politics were farm-related.
To him, there was no greater responsibility than being appointed to the levee board in Leachville -- which helped protect fellow farmers when the Mississippi River flooded the flat farmlands -- like his grandfather was.
"When I was a young man, I thought that's what public service was," Clark says. "If you could be on the levee board and worry about floods and make sure that farmlands and houses didn't flood, you could make a difference."
Clark began to see beyond the levee board when his grandfather arranged for him to spend a month as a page for Rep. Ezekiel "Took" Gathings in 1964.
At first, Clark was unwilling to leave his constituents, the 100 or so high schoolers under his care as president of the student council. But before he knew it, Clark was standing in a rooming house directly behind the U.S. Supreme Court with two brand new suits in hand and $300 in traveler's checks.
"I was country come to town," Clark says. He'd never been to a big city, never been on an airplane or lived alone. So to get to know people the small-town way, he frequented the same restaurant each night and did a daily run for Coca-Cola and graham crackers, which he split with Gathings each afternoon in exchange for stories about the other political greats who had walked those halls.
When Clark returned to the Natural State, he was still overwhelmed by the experience that made American government more real for him and set him, loosely, on the political path.
He'd surveyed the jobs held by family members -- preacher, teacher, farmer and politician -- and for him, the choice was obvious.
"I don't want to be a teacher, I sure don't want to farm, and I don't think I want to be a preacher, and maybe I want politics, I don't know.
"But I did know."
At Arkansas State University, he majored in political science with emphasis on political theory. He minored in military science and French while holding down jobs at Gordon Matthews Men's Store, canning corn and acting as president of his fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon.
Clark began practicing law in Brinkley shortly after graduating from the University of Arkansas School of Law. He had moved back with the intent to work as a lawyer, but two months into it his boss appointed him municipal judge of Monroe County.
Bowled over, he asked where he should even begin.
On Clark's first day of court, he showed up wearing a double-breasted navy blazer with six buttons, red bell-bottom pants, red patent leather platform heels and a red, white and blue flag tie. It was America, he was upholding U.S. law, and it was the 1970s, after all.
The defense attorney said "'Where is the real judge? You don't look anything like the real judge, I can tell by looking at you.' [And] I said, 'I am the real judge.'"
Clark was so green that he spent a month believing that the oath prevented people from lying in the courtroom and then the second month thinking that an arrest was a sign of guilt. By the third month, he knew there was a little bit of truth coming from each direction and began to listen more closely.
When David Nuber, who taught Clark in law school, called to invite him to apply for an open position at the University of Arkansas School of Law, he packed his bags and left in a matter of a few weeks.
PRESIDENT OR ELVIS
Clark was assistant dean of admissions at UA from 1973-76, an exciting time in the school's history, during which Bill and Hillary Clinton, Dick Atkinson, who would later be the school's dean, and Arkansas Chief Justice Howard Brill were all brought on board.
He became friends with Bill Clinton and the two shared their political ambitions, both acutely aware of each other's advantages -- Bill's East Coast education and world travel; Clark's knack for making valuable contacts in all 75 counties.
While hanging out at Steve's house one night, Clinton and Clark were listening to Elvis when Clinton admitted he wanted to be president.
"I said 'Knock yourself out. I don't,'" Clark says. "'I want to be governor.' Bill said, 'If you could be Elvis or governor, which would you be?' He said Elvis, and I said 'Me too.'"
Why? Elvis had a bigger impact than any politician, they both agreed.
In starting his political career, Clark attended the Institute of Politics in Government, a program sponsored by the Ford Foundation, where he learned to do polling and campaign management.
"We all had ambitions," Clark says. "We were learning how to be good at politics."
Soon after, he was invited to be a part of Gov. David Pryor's special legislative team. He left his faculty position for six or seven weeks to fulfill that post, which went famously, thanks to some aid and cooperation from his uncle, state Sen. John F. Bearden Jr.
A few months later at the state Bar Association meeting, Pryor invited Clark to meet him privately at the governor's mansion, where he asked him to be chief of staff.
"I said 'Governor, I'm 29 years old. I'm just a kid,'" Clark protested. "'If I'm chief of staff, I think I'm the second guy in charge. I will take names and kick shins, and I will make mistakes because I'm 29.'"
Pryor's offer stood. Clark had a week to think on it, a time in which he took his reservations to his friends, colleagues and the most political savvy members of his family.
"My great uncle [former Lt. Gov. Nathan Gordon] said, 'Son, take the job!'" Clark says. His reservation "was my age and I didn't want to be David Pryor's boy. I had this ambition to be elected myself."
In the end, Clark couldn't turn down such a big job. He took it and moved to Little Rock.
SECOND MOST POWERFUL MAN
As Pryor's chief of staff, Clark says his ego began to grow. He took over the office that was mirror-image to the governor's by walking in and demanding those present find somewhere else to set up. He felt his place was at Winthrop Rockefeller's old desk.
It was then that Clark began making the poor decisions -- illegal and unethical ones -- that later cost him his seat as attorney general and any chance to be governor. But first it cost him his marriage when once-a-week outings and in-office picnics with his daughters no longer seemed like he was prioritizing his family.
"[I felt] I got to do this, the state is counting on me," he says. "I thought I was doing the Lord's work, and I was pretty good, but I was cheating the things I really held dear."
Not long into his appointment, Clark told Pryor of his intention to run for office and offered to resign, but the governor convinced him to stay on as chief of staff for another year. Meanwhile, he told Hillary Clinton that if her husband became governor, senator or U.S. attorney general, he would run for Arkansas attorney general.
In 1978, Clark defeated Rep. Art Givens and was elected to the office. He remained there for 11 years -- the longest serving attorney general in state history.
He did a great many things during those years, the proudest of which were the eight cases that he argued (and won five) in the U.S. Supreme Court, the initiation of the Arkansas Missing Children Services program and an investigation of Arkansas nursing homes.
Clark is acutely aware of how idealistic those accomplishments sound in light of what all Arkansans came to know -- that he was misusing taxpayer funds while in office -- and in context of what most know, that he was an alcoholic.
"I was running for governor, it made for good copy, OK?" he says, and readily admits that the publicity was attractive.
"Part of [being A.G.], I just loved it," Clark says. "Much like alcohol with me, it was just addictive. Parts of it I loved for the wrong reasons. I loved being on the news at 5, 6 and 10. I loved it. I knew the game."
In 1990, when Clark decided to run for governor, he simply thought he'd been attorney general too long and that if there ever was a time to move up, it was now.
MY LAST BEST CHOICE
An investigation into Clark's spending while in the attorney general's office resulted in a conviction on the charge of fraud by deception. He was fined $10,000 plus legal fees, a total of $17,000.
Clark paid in full, was placed on probation, lost his law license and went bankrupt. The greatest of the punishments was the damage to his reputation. Humiliated, Clark moved away. There were stints in Georgia and Florida, but nothing that lasted, fit or got him out of debt.
At his lowest point, Clark thought of suicide, he said.
When a friend, Charles Boyd, called to offer that they go into business together, Clark was incredulous. He'd recently applied for 70 jobs and couldn't get work as so much as a waiter or chauffeur. The job was for a janitorial supply company -- not the most glamorous gig -- and was contingent on his participation in Alcoholics Anonymous.
Clark didn't even have the gas money to get to his friend in Memphis.
Boyd fronted the money, then accompanied him to meetings when Clark wasn't confident he could make it a single day without a drink.
"He told me, 'Why don't you just not drink, just today? If you want to drink tomorrow, knock yourself out,'" Clark says. "As you do that more and more, your mind clears. The destruction you've caused doesn't go away -- you have to address that -- but then I began to think that if I have 2 million choices, my last best choice, number 2 million and one, is to drink.
"Life started getting better -- not easier, but better -- when I started getting sober."
Clark is 21 years sober now. Through the encouragement of wife Suzanne and a little grace from the Texas State Bar Association, Clark regained his law license in June of 2000, which set him on the path back to Arkansas.
While waiting for approval to take the bar exam more than 30 years after his first one, a member of the Texas Bar Association said, "'Son, in Texas we believe in rehabilitation, and I think maybe you've had enough,'" Clark recalls.
"I quit listening at that point. I was thrilled."
NAN Profiles on 01/10/2016
Print Headline: John Steven Clark