The year was 1983, and James L. "Skip" Rutherford was missing politics. He decided to do something about it, and the result was the Political Animals Club.
Rutherford, who has served as dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service since 2006, announced earlier this month that he will retire from that position at the end of June. Here's hoping that he will be able to devote time again to one of his greatest creations, the aforementioned Political Animals.
Rutherford grew up in Batesville and was interested in Arkansas politics as a boy. That interest continued when he was studying journalism at the University of Arkansas, where he edited the school newspaper during his senior year of 1971-72.
Among Rutherford's mentors was the legendary Ernie Deane, who had been the original "Arkansas Traveler" columnist for the Arkansas Gazette prior to moving from Little Rock to Fayetteville in the late 1960s. Deane took a job teaching journalism and working in the UA's Office of Information Services.
Deane often told his students (Rutherford among them): "I was trained in the old journalistic school of striving for accuracy, clarity, honesty, courage, fairness, completeness and timeliness."
He took Rutherford to Arkansas Press Association meetings and introduced him to the state's top politicians. Rutherford didn't become a journalist, but he has always had a soft spot for those of us who did. After college graduation, Rutherford stayed in Fayetteville as the public relations director at McIlroy Bank & Trust.
In 1978, Rutherford was a volunteer on then-Gov. David Pryor's successful race for the U.S. Senate. Pryor hired Rutherford to run his Little Rock office, which Rutherford did from 1979-83. In 1983, it was time to return to the corporate world. Mack McLarty had become the chief executive officer of the public utility Arkla Inc. and asked Rutherford to join his management team.
Rutherford welcomed the increased salary, but he missed the political world. He decided there should be a place for those with an interest in politics to gather on an occasional basis and talk about what was happening in Arkansas. Rutherford wanted the group to hear from officeholders, political consultants and journalists, becoming a "nonpartisan grassroots organization of community leaders and activists who would meet regularly."
Rutherford asked several friends to join him at Little Rock's Coachman's Inn for breakfast. The hotel, which was adjacent to Interstate 30 where the main post office now stands, was owned by Little Rock financiers Jack and Witt Stephens. It was widely known as a political gathering spot, and many legislators and lobbyists stayed there during legislative sessions. Judge William J. Smith was invited to that first meeting to talk about former Gov. Orval Faubus. Afterward, the group decided to meet again.
Membership initially was limited to people who weren't running or didn't hold elective office. When Rutherford announced in 1987 that he was going to run for the Little Rock School Board, he stepped down as chairman. Club meetings had moved from the Coachman's Inn to the Little Rock Hilton on University Avenue by that time.
Little Rock attorney George Jernigan took over as the second chairman. Jernigan was followed by his law partner, Russ Meeks. The fourth chairman was Bob Lyford, the senior vice president and general counsel for the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. During Lyford's tenure, meetings often were held at 7 a.m. in the ornate conference room of the AECC headquarters in southwest Little Rock.
In January 2007, Lyford handed over the chairmanship to Steve Ronnel, a Little Rock businessman who had worked in the White House during Bill Clinton's administration. Ronnel switched from breakfast to lunch and moved meetings to the grand hall of the Arkansas Governor's Mansion. Ronnel also began the Political Animals Scholarship, an annual $3,000 college scholarship given to a public high school student body president or senior class president from Pulaski County.
Ronnel served as chairman for four years. I took over from him as the club's sixth chairman in January 2011 and stayed in that role for almost seven years as the club held both lunch and breakfast meetings.
The seventh and current chairman is Shane Broadway, a former state House speaker and state senator who now works for the Arkansas State University System. The club is taking 2020 off due to the pandemic, but I'm hopeful it can come back stronger than ever in 2021.
The beauty of the club is that it isn't a highly structured organization. No dues are collected, there's no staff, there's no board of directors, and anyone can join. Volunteers run the club, which has an email list of almost 1,500 names. The club meets nine or 10 times a year with an average attendance of about 200 people.
The success of the Political Animals Club led to the establishment of similar groups at Fayetteville, Jonesboro and Monticello. Arkansas and national political figures have spoken through the decades to the Little Rock club. Arkansas' governor traditionally addresses the club during the first meeting each year. Members of the state's congressional delegation are regular speakers.
Noted Washington political analyst Charlie Cook has visited the club on a consistent basis. Heavyweight Washington pundits ranging from David Gergen to Joe Klein also have appeared. The focus, however, has always been on Arkansas politics and those who make it such a colorful spectacle.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.