Rich Huddleston is more of a "glass half full" than "glass half empty" kind of guy.
In his job as executive director of the Little Rock-based Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, he's relentlessly optimistic about improving the lives of children -- the most vulnerable segment of society. Arkansas Advocates is a statewide, private nonprofit child advocacy organization that conducts extensive research and lobbies at the state level to fund programs that help better the lives of children and families.
With a background in research and expertise in public policy, Huddleston has earned the respect of lawmakers and peers. He has served on numerous state and national boards and advisory committees, including the founding board of the Partnership for America's Children, the Arkansas Legislative Task Force on Reducing Poverty and Promoting Economic Opportunity, and the Arkansas Commission on Children, Youth and Families.
Huddleston and Arkansas Advocates are well known among other child-advocacy groups across the country, says Laura Kellams, who runs the organization's satellite office in Northwest Arkansas.
His motivation comes from the heart.
"People know that the only test for Rich is, 'What's best for kids,'" Kellams says. "That's really where it begins and ends for him."
Arkansas Advocates is 40 this year; Huddleston has been with the organization more than half that time. That 40th anniversary is cause for celebration, which will happen in the form of an anniversary gala Thursday at the Statehouse Convention Center in downtown Little Rock.
The event will honor the 10 founding members of the organization: Betty Bumpers, Hillary Clinton, Pat Lile, Jim Miles, Dorothy Nayles, Judge Olly Neal, Mary Sue Jacobs and the late Bettye Caldwell, the late Dr. Betty Ann Lowe and the late Sharon Pallone. (Clinton is not expected to attend.)
Huddleston has been at Arkansas Advocates since 1995, except for a five-month stint in 2003 when he took a job as director of policy and planning for the state Department of Human Services.
"I hated working in a bureaucracy and not doing advocacy work," he says. So he asked then-Arkansas Advocates Executive Director Amy Rossi for his old job back as research and fiscal policy director. He replaced her as executive director when she left the next year.
Rossi says Huddleston is best at helping people understand complex issues and how they affect the lives of children and families. "His writing style and ability to condense really complicated fiscal matters for our constituents and political stakeholders was really helpful," Rossi says.
The job means much more to him than a way to make a living, Rossi adds. "He has a real compassion as well as passion for helping those who can't help themselves."
That enthusiasm for child welfare runs deep in Huddleston, and he sometimes bumbles a little while talking as he strives to spit it all out at once. Observers say he's great at strategizing, considering all angles and potential pitfalls of any proposal.
"He's a masterful policy analyst," Arkansas Advocates Board President Jay Barth says of Huddleston. "He understands the public policy process almost better than anyone else in the state."
A MIND FOR NUMBERS
Huddleston came to Arkansas in 1989 from Athens, Ga., where he was trudging through a doctorate in public administration and working full time as a graduate assistant at the University of Georgia. After three years of coursework, he was burned out and decided academia was not his thing. He was offered a newly created position as public policy analyst for Metroplan in Little Rock, where he stayed until 1992.
He held a few other research- and policy-related jobs until he made his way to Arkansas Advocates, managing the organization's state fiscal and welfare reform projects.
Arkansas Advocates does most of its work at the state Capitol, and Huddleston works late and on weekends when the Legislature is in session. Kellams says Huddleston is an expert on the state budget, the tax system and taxes as a whole.
"A lot of people don't make the connection between children, poverty and kids' health and how the state budget is directly affecting that ... and Rich really tries to make sure more people understand it," she says.
When the organization is successful, the impact is great, Huddleston says.
Arkansas Advocates led the charge with former Gov. Mike Huckabee in creating the state-funded ARKids First, which provides low-cost health insurance with other programs for about 430,000 uninsured or underinsured Arkansas children. When Huckabee signed ARKids First into law 20 years ago, about one in five children in the state had no insurance. By 2014, this figure was down to 5 percent.
Then, in 2003 in response to the Lake View School District in Phillips County school-funding case, Arkansas Advocates played a significant role in persuading the Legislature to increase annual funding for pre-K education with the Arkansas Better Chance Program. The measure provided an additional $100 million per year for preschool education.
As executive director, Huddleston oversees a staff of 13 and an annual budget of more than $1.5 million. Roughly 85 percent of Arkansas Advocates' funding comes in the form of private foundation grants from sources including The Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation in Little Rock.
The rest comes from private donations and special events such as the annual Soup Sunday fundraiser. There's one in Little Rock and one in Northwest Arkansas, both attended by some 1,000 supporters.
THE GENTLE TOUCH
Cory Anderson, executive vice president of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, has worked with Huddleston over his entire tenure as executive director. Before joining the Rockefeller Foundation, Anderson was Huddleston's contact with The Annie E. Casey Foundation.
"His commitment to work changing policies in Arkansas on behalf of kids and families -- who don't always have someone else speaking for them -- is unparalleled in the country," Anderson says.
"Rich basically has 50 peers in the country, so I've had the pleasure of working with all those organizations. His work and the work of Arkansas [Advocates] stands up well against the work of any of these organizations throughout the country."
From the 2017 legislative session Arkansas Advocates was able to get $3 million in new funding for pre-K education -- the first substantial increase since 2007, Huddleston says. The group also successfully lobbied for a resolution that led to health care coverage of immigrant children residing legally in Arkansas. The measure will be of particular help to the many Marshallese children in Northwest Arkansas.
In addition, Arkansas Advocates helped change school policies so that children in kindergarten through fifth grade cannot be expelled from school or serve out-of-school suspension unless there's a threat of physical violence. Huddleston wants to see the measure extended to include grades six-12, as well.
"A lot of research that's coming out now says that if you want kids to really learn, your first reaction can't be to kick kids out of school," he says.
School-age children who are suspended or expelled lose valuable school days, which often leads to chronic absence, Huddleston says.
"You can't learn unless you're in the classroom."
Huddleston says the group unusually engages legislators, state agencies, law enforcement and even the governor to get what it wants or quash initiatives that work against children.
During the most recent session, the organization made headway in its crusade against certain tax cuts. Fewer taxes collected means less money in the state budget and less for programs that help children. Arkansas Advocates also helped get paid maternity leave for state employees and about $27 million in new funding for child welfare. Gov. Asa Hutchinson championed the latter.
"The more voices you can have at the Capitol, the stronger that you are," Huddleston says. "If you don't have strong legislative allies and legislative champions and if you don't have partners, it's much more difficult to get things done."
State Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, describes Huddleston as a "thoughtful and intentional leader."
"He is very good about knowing his subject matter but not using it as a bludgeon to try to force people to take his position," she says. "He's a patient, forceful person without the kind of 'in-your-face' attitude.
"I'm always pretty amazed at how he finds a way to say what needs to be said without there being a firestorm."
A lot of what's on Arkansas Advocates' agenda takes years to achieve. The organization bites off a little bit at a time, all the while looking at the bigger, long-term picture. On Huddleston's wish list: a state earned-income tax credit to aid low-income working families with children.
DON'T WORRY, BE HAPPY
Figures from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2016 American Community Survey, the most recent data available, show the poverty rate for Arkansas children 18 and under is 24 percent. For children under age 5, the poverty rate is 28 percent.
Some 30 percent to 40 percent of the state's minority children 18 and under are living in poverty, Huddleston says.
"We often say that the official poverty rate really underestimates the number of kids in families who are really struggling," he says. Research says families need income twice the poverty level for kids to have just the necessities.
Do these statistics bother him?
"There are nights when I go home, and I just have to somehow try and tune the work out," Huddleston says. "There are a lot of kids in this state who don't have everything they need to get by with the basics, much less have what they need to be able to thrive and succeed."
Huddleston himself thrived as a child, despite being an Air Force brat and moving every two to three years. He was born in North Carolina, his dad, Harold's, home state, and also lived in Alaska, Texas, twice in Florida and in Wisconsin, where his mom, Verna, was from. He found it easy to make new friends through sports, mainly basketball and tennis.
During his senior year, his basketball coach coaxed him into playing on the school's first-ever men's volleyball team. They lost every match, Huddleston said. "It was a humbling experience, for sure."
Some of his fondest memories are of him and an older cousin listening to University of North Carolina Tar Heels basketball games on the radio while driving around the block in the cousin's old Volkswagen Beetle in Gastonia, N.C., where Huddleston was born.
He's still an enthusiastic North Carolina fan and will go to great lengths to see them play. He once braved a Little Rock snowstorm to see his beloved Tar Heels play North Carolina State at Chapel Hill, N.C. "It was a 6 a.m. flight, and I had to get on the interstate at 4 a.m., driving 20 miles an hour because the road was all iced and snowed over," he recalls.
Huddleston has been described as "an absolutely devoted son" to his mother, with whom he lived after his parents divorced while he was in high school. She moved to Little Rock some 15 years ago and passed away in 2015.
"Rich took care of her and cared for her ... it was a beautiful thing," Rossi says.
After he was promoted to executive director of Arkansas Advocates, he met and married the former Janie Fletcher. She had moved to Little Rock in 1998 from Northwest Arkansas to work in Huckabee's administration. The pair had worked together during the 2001 legislative session but didn't start dating until after it ended. They tied the knot about five months later.
Rich considers Janie's daughter, Lauren, as his own. She was 13 when they became a family; the daughter is now married and lives with her husband, Nick, in Little Rock.
In 2014, Janie left her job as deputy director at the Department of Human Services for a position at the nonprofit Zero to Three, which provides parents, professionals and policymakers resources to nurture early-childhood development.
Huddleston seldom takes time off but when he does, it's usually to see basketball games or music. One staff member noted that he has "much more sophisticated music tastes than many younger staff members."
Near and dear to him are the family's dogs -- a pug named Zoe and a petite pug, Lucy. They've had up to three pugs at one time.
The work-life balance can be difficult, but the work of Arkansas Advocates "gets in your blood, in your DNA," Rossi says. "And you're never finished.
"He continues to toil away, and I admire his tenacity."
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Feb. 22, 1961; Gastonia, N.C.
I WOULD DESCRIBE MY CHILDHOOD AS ever-changing.
THE ONE THING THAT MAKES ME GOOD AT MY JOB IS a desire to improve public policy to make things better for Arkansas children and families.
CHILD WELFARE MATTERS TO ME BECAUSE kids are our state’s future.
THE PERFECT SATURDAY INCLUDES good coffee, breakfast out, a leisurely walk with the dogs, my wife and I getting caught up on one or two TV shows we missed during the week, the two of us running errands together and, depending on the time of year, watching the University of North Carolina play basketball.
FAVORITE FOODS: comfort foods … spaghetti and meatballs and mashed potatoes, but not together
WHAT I’M LISTENING TO NOW: old music by Green Day
MY MOST PRIZED MATERIAL POSSESSIONS IN-CLUDE pictures I have of my mom.
ONE THING PEOPLE MAY NOT KNOW ABOUT ME: I played basketball at the same YMCA as two guys who went on to play in the NBA, James Worthy and Sleepy Floyd.
THE THING THAT KEEPS ME UP AT NIGHT: how to keep my organization funded
GOALS I HAVEN’T ACHIEVED YET: I want to write a book and learn a foreign language that you can speak.
ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: committed
“He’s a masterful policy analyst. He understands the public policy process almost better than anyone else in the state.” — Arkansas Advocates Board President Jay Barth about Rich Huddleston
High Profile on 10/08/2017
Print Headline: Richard Alan Huddleston