Charlie Francis Cole Chaffin (1938–)
Charlie Cole Chaffin of Benton (Saline County) served in the Arkansas Senate representing District 16 (Saline County, parts of Perry and Garland counties) from 1984 to 1994. She was a delegate to the 1979–1980 Arkansas Constitutional Convention and the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 1994 and 1996.
Charlie Francis Cole was born in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on September 13, 1938, to Grace Francis “Frank” Cole, who was a nurse anesthetist, and John Walton Cole, a fourth-generation physician. She was raised in Sheridan (Grant County) and Malvern (Hot Spring County) in a politically active family. Her grandfather, Dr. Charles F. Cole, served on the Grant County Quorum Court. Her father served on the Grant County Democratic Central Committee and eighteen years on the Arkansas Board of Education. Her uncle Ed McDonald was Arkansas’s secretary of state and a candidate for governor. Another uncle, Jim Cole, served as prosecuting attorney and state legislator. Her mother marched for civil rights with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and her brother, John Cole, served as prosecuting attorney and circuit judge. She and family members worked on campaigns for various offices, and they were well-informed on current events, having frequent discussions at home about issues facing Arkansas.
Chaffin attended Malvern public schools, graduating from Malvern High School in 1956. She attended the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), where she was a member of Zeta Tau Alpha sorority and Alpha Lambda Delta and Kappa Delta Pi honor societies, earning a BSE in secondary education in 1960 and an M.Ed. in 1964. She also completed additional graduate work in the curriculum specialist program. Chaffin taught chemistry and physical science at Bryant High School from 1970 to 1981 and was a part–time chemistry lecturer at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock from 1977 to 1990.
Chaffin won election over six opponents, including former state senator Virgil Fletcher, for delegate to the 1979–1980 Arkansas Constitutional Convention, serving as chairperson of the Science and Technology Committee and a member of the Finance and Taxation Committee. She was one of thirteen women in the 100-member Constitutional Convention. She stated, “I served on the Finance and Taxation Committee, because I wanted to be involved in areas that were not especially associated with women. Women’s issues were associated with education, environment, children, all of which are extremely important to me, and what I really wanted to be involved with when I got, later, in the Senate. But in the Constitutional Convention I felt like I needed to make a mark in some other areas and particularly in the area of finance.”
In 1983, she served on the Education Standards Committee, a committee chaired by Arkansas first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In 1984, Chaffin ran in a special election for the Arkansas Senate seat that was vacated by the death of Senator James Teague in June. She led four opponents in the Democratic primary and won a runoff for the nomination over Saline County Judge Wayne Bishop before winning the general election with sixty-nine percent over her Republican opponent. She was sworn in by her brother, Circuit Judge John Cole, on November 20, 1984.
Senator Chaffin was the third woman to serve in the Arkansas Senate, and she was the only female senator during eight of the ten years she served. In 1992, representing District 14 (part of Saline and Perry counties), she was elected by her fellow senators to the new position of deputy president pro tempore. She was also on the Capitol Arts Commission.
Chaffin passed legislation to encourage public school student community service. She served on the Arkansas Ethics Commission and, as senator, sponsored an ethics bill, which failed, but was later passed overwhelmingly by Arkansans as an initiated act of the people. She sponsored legislation to benefit people with physical and mental disabilities, which failed. “It was really a perfect study in how fear is used to deprive people of the same rights as other folks have,” she said. She sponsored environmental legislation and education legislation, such as the bill to create the Arkansas School for Mathematics and Sciences, and worked on civil rights legislation and legislation in support of women, such as making Arkansas the first state to authorize participation in the women’s military memorial that was erected in the Arlington National Cemetery. “I held up the budget for the University of Arkansas, actually for the athletic part of the University of Arkansas, until we had a promise from Coach [Frank] Broyles that they would not cut women’s activities,” she said. Chaffin was also a frequent speaker at Girls State, which was held at the Arkansas State Capitol.
Chaffin filibustered, unsuccessfully, against Governor Bill Clinton’s bill to reduce the tax credit for donations to universities and colleges, which she opposed because she favored a full repeal. As to communication, Chaffin remarked that the biggest surprise to her during her legislative service was that there was no oratory in the Arkansas Senate: “You knew how the vote count was before you went down there, and you got down there and said something in two or three sentences and sat back down, then would be ready to answer questions if you needed to or come back and close for your bill. But if there was any great oratory to it that generally meant that you already knew you aren’t going to win.”
In 1994, Chaffin ran for lieutenant governor, winning the Democratic Party nomination but ultimately losing to Republican candidate Mike Huckabee, 41–59 percent. She ran for lieutenant governor again in a special election in 1996 but lost to Winthrop Paul Rockefeller 49–51 percent: “He was a perfect gentleman for the entire campaign, but we were never in a position to be on the same podium, even at AETN at their debate situation; he didn’t come to that. So I carried this great big caricature around with me… I’d say, ‘I’m Charlie Cole Chaffin. This is my opponent Win Rockefeller. Ask us anything you want to know.’”
In 1997, Chaffin was hired to teach chemistry at the Arkansas School for Mathematics and Sciences. In 2001 to 2002, she served on the Arkansas Blue Ribbon Commission on Public Education, which was tasked with assessing the state’s education system and recommending improvements after the Arkansas Supreme Court declared the state’s school funding inequitable, inadequate, and unconstitutional.
Remaining active in the Mu Chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma, she was among the retired educators in the group that provided books to 626 Saline County youngsters through the Imagination Library program in 2012. In 2014, Senator Chaffin was honored as one of the pioneers by the nonpartisan Women Lead Arkansas that promotes women for political office regardless of party.
For additional information:
Brummett, John. “Charlie Cole Chaffin, Only Woman in State Senate, Comes into Her Own.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 23, 1985, p. 7C.
———. “Cheers for Chaffin: A Small Partisan Victory.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 13, 1996, p. 7B.
Charlie Cole Chaffin, Southern Women Legislators Collection, MUM00422, Archives and Special Collections, J. D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi. Box 1, Series 2, Folder 1–32.
Charlie Cole Chaffin video interview with Lindsley Armstrong Smith, January 9, 2006. “Women in the Arkansas General Assembly,” University of Arkansas Women’s Giving Circle and Diane D. Blair Center of Southern Politics & Society project. David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
Oman, Noel. “Chaffin a Test to Huckabee’s Political Staying Power.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 6, 1994, p. 4B.
Lindsley Armstrong Smith and Stephen A. Smith
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
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