I remember vividly the two days I spent on the road with Nate Coulter in the summer of 1993. We have a lot in common.
We both hail from southwest Arkansas; I'm from Arkadelphia and Coulter is from Nashville. We were born in the fall of 1959; I'm exactly one month older. And we know many of the same people.
I was political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that summer, and Coulter was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. The Republican nominee was a Southern Baptist minister from Texarkana named Mike Huckabee, who had run an unsuccessful race against U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers the previous fall.
The 1993 special election for lieutenant governor was drawing national media attention. The Republican National Committee was determined to embarrass a first-year Democratic president named Bill Clinton on his home turf.
Clinton had resigned as governor prior to his inauguration. Jim Guy Tucker moved up from lieutenant governor to governor and then called the special election to fill his old position.
I spent two days on the road with each candidate prior to writing profiles of them. My trip with Coulter ended with a barbecue at the fairgrounds in Morrilton. I stood at the edge of the event, listening to stories told by former Conway County Sheriff Marlin Hawkins.
Huckabee won a tight race, and you know the rest of the story. He moved up to governor July 15, 1996, following Tucker's resignation. Huckabee served out the rest of Tucker's term and was elected to two full four-year terms, becoming the third longest-serving governor in Arkansas history, behind only Orval Faubus and Clinton.
I wound up working almost a decade in the governor's office with Huckabee, though Coulter and I remained friends. My friendship with Coulter pays off this time of year when he brings peaches from Nashville.
On this day, Coulter and I are having lunch on the outside patio at 42, the restaurant at the Clinton Presidential Center. Coulter has spent the past five years as executive director of the Central Arkansas Library System, overseeing one of the finest library systems in the South. He replaced the legendary Bobby Roberts (for whom the Roberts Library of Arkansas History & Art is named) and has worked diligently to take the system to the next level.
CALS consists of 14 branches and about 260 full-time employees.
When this newspaper's High Profile section profiled Coulter last year, CALS board member Annette Herrington said: "Selecting Nate is one of the best decisions we've made in my 20 years at CALS. He is open-minded, very thoughtful and beyond thorough. He examines issues from every angle, and he focuses on our overall mission without losing any of the details. I know from experience what a rare combination of skills that represents."
Now Coulter has the job of convincing Little Rock voters to approve a property-tax increase of 0.5 mills to compensate for increased costs associated with digital materials such as audiobooks. Coulter estimates the millage increase would raise property taxes by $14 annually on the average home.
As a Little Rock resident, I plan to support CALS with my vote in the Nov. 9 special election. As a voracious reader and as someone who writes for a living, I understand the importance of libraries. I hope readers statewide understand this as well.
You may live outside the CALS service area, but you should hope that every library in the state does well. Arkansas long has been a state with low educational attainment levels, a fact that has been sadly borne out by the high number of people who believe Internet-generated disinformation and thus refuse to get a potentially lifesaving vaccine. Ignorance is expensive.
We must get smarter as a state if Arkansas is to reach its potential in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century. Strong libraries will help us do that.
"Libraries are changing everywhere," Coulter says. "Libraries always will be about books, regardless of what format they're in. Books aren't going anywhere, but we have to change with the times and get those books to people in the form they prefer."
CALS, for instance, has something called a "tech card" that provides access to everything the library has online. It also has employees who focus on outreach to underserved communities, one for Black residents and one for Hispanic residents. Branch libraries loan everything from power tools to fishing poles these days
"We're still not as accessible as we need to be, but we're working on it," Coulter says.
In early 2019, the system adopted a strategic plan, and one of the pillars of that plan was additional outreach outside library buildings. In addition to those outreach efforts, CALS also is changing how it uses its buildings. Inside the historic Cox Building in the River Market District of downtown Little Rock, for example, is what's known as the Rock It! Lab, a place where budding entrepreneurs are given the tools and training necessary to start and grow businesses.
The lab is a partnership between CALS and a group known as Advancing Black Entrepreneurship. It provides technical assistance, mentorship, marketing assistance, networking opportunities, business education and one-on-one instruction to help entrepreneurs create successful businesses.
"Surveys consistently show that people trust their local libraries," says Coulter, the former politician who knows how to read polls.
He's hopeful that trust will translate into a successful millage increase come November.
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.