House lawmakers Monday selected state Rep. Matthew Shepherd, an El Dorado Republican who heads the chamber's Judiciary Committee, to be the next speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives.
The secret ballot set Shepherd, 42, on track to succeed House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, who has led the House since 2015. Shepherd will serve as speaker-designate until being formally elected at the start of the 2019 regular session, unless Democrats gain control of the House in November's election.
Republicans now hold a 75-seat super-majority in the 100-seat House. The speaker's race pitted Shepherd, an attorney, against a fellow Republican, Little Rock Rep. Andy Davis, an engineer.
The selection of Shepherd to the speaker's chair continued a half-century tradition of the House choosing its top leader from outside of Little Rock and Pulaski County. House staff said the recorded vote was 57-41 for Shepherd.
Shepherd said the state Legislature has been "stained" by corruption scandals in recent years, including charges against a former state senator and representative in an alleged kickback scheme involving the use of General Improvement Funds.
"It's important for us to set a high standard of conduct to try and rebuild the public trust and confidence in the institution," Shepherd told reporters after the vote. "This is a great institution, and there's so many great people and it's unfortunate that a few can tarnish the reputation of so many."
Pressed on what changes he envisioned for the House, Shepherd said he was not ready to announce specifics. He said he planned to continue speaking with lawmakers.
Earlier, as legislators in Washington and state capitals became embroiled in sexual harassment scandals, Gillam arranged for voluntary harassment-prevention seminars. (While voluntary, House members were told in advance that sign-in sheets would be released to the press. All but six members attended.) Shepherd said he did not know if he would continue the classes, make them mandatory or offer them during House orientation.
Shepherd similarly declined to say whether he planned to roll back new House rules that will give him the authority to appoint committee membership. Under previous speakers, membership had been selected based on seniority, but the rules were changed after the minority party Democrats were able to briefly get control of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee. Both parties later criticized the change.
"What I've told members is I want to determine what the consensus of the House is," Shepherd said.
Neither Shepherd nor Davis appeared to have the race locked up heading into the final weekend. A third House member who had made known her desire to seek the position, state Rep. Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne, withdrew last year and announced her support for Davis.
The glad-handing continued up until the final minutes before the vote Monday, and Shepherd and Davis could be seen talking privately with members in the chamber after the House officially gaveled out the the fiscal session, which ended on its 29th day.
Both candidates were given the opportunity to speak for up to 15 minutes before the vote. Shepherd used 11 minutes of his time, while Davis spoke for just under four minutes.
Davis did not immediately respond to a phone call later in the afternoon Monday.
"I think the ship will be in good hands as I depart," said Gillam, who, like other lawmakers, declined to reveal his vote. "I think Rep. Shepherd is going to do a fantastic job as speaker."
As for who wanted to take over as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Shepherd said he had yet to make that consideration. The four-term lawmaker is running unopposed in the Nov. 6 general election.
A Section on 03/13/2018
Print Headline: El Dorado's Shepherd elected speaker