Jim Keet (1949–)
Jim Keet is a former member of the Arkansas General Assembly who served in both the House and the Senate. He also conducted two unsuccessful political campaigns, one for U.S. Congress and one for Arkansas governor. A prominent Arkansas businessman, he became a major developer in the regional restaurant and hospitality business.
James Holland Keet III was born in Springfield, Missouri, on May 12, 1949, to prominent lawyer and judge James Holland Keet Jr. and Virginia Keet. In 1971, he graduated from Southern Methodist University (SMU), earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration. While at SMU, he served as the student body president of the School of Business.
After graduation, Keet began a lifelong career in the hospitality industry and soon became one of the youngest innkeepers in the Holiday Inn chain. He quickly climbed the corporate ladder, being named to an executive position as operations coordinator for Holiday Inn’s project administration in Memphis, Tennessee.
After leaving Holiday Inn in 1975, Keet and partner Gerald Hamra opened Arkansas’s first Wendy’s restaurant, in North Little Rock (Pulaski County). During the next eleven years, they owned and operated twenty-seven Wendy’s and Sisters restaurants in Arkansas and Texas. During that time, their Wendy’s operation was named the nation’s top franchise.
In 1988, Keet entered the state political arena and was elected as a Republican to the Arkansas House of Representatives representing District 58, comprising part of western Little Rock (Pulaski County). During his time in the House, he advocated for legislation concerning education and family issues. He was the co-author of the so called “Drug Czar” bill, which established a commission and a statewide director to enforce drug laws.
After a single term, Keet sought federal office in 1990 by campaigning for the Second Congressional District seat vacated by Tommy Robinson in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was easily defeated by former congressman Ray Thornton. In 1992, he began his political comeback by winning a state Senate seat representing the newly organized Pulaski County District 15. During his one four-year term, he co-sponsored the controversial “three-strikes” bill, which would have given life sentences to repeat felons. He was also a strong advocate of programs to improve the state’s literacy rate.
Though he decided not to seek reelection to the state Senate in 1996, Keet retained an interest in politics and, for a while, managed the Little Rock office of U.S. Senator Tim Hutchinson. When Hutchinson was defeated in 2002, Keet moved to Florida to pursue business interests.
Keet returned to Arkansas in 2008 and two years later entered the gubernatorial race against the incumbent governor, Mike Beebe. Keet quickly ran into opposition when his right to run for governor was challenged under a constitutional residency clause. Under the Arkansas state constitution, a candidate must have resided in the state for seven years. However, it is not clear as to whether those years must be consecutive. (Keet had been a resident of Florida from 2002 to 2008.) The issue was never officially challenged, however, and soon faded. Keet was easily defeated, with Beebe garnering approximately sixty-five percent of the popular vote and winning all seventy-five counties. The last time that had occurred was in 1976.
Even while serving as an elected government official, Keet maintained his business interests. In 1988, he joined the board of directors of Maxie’s of America, Inc., a chain of restaurants with its operations office in Florida. Becoming chairman of the company in 1989, he managed a merger with Rally’s Inc. in 1991. In 1994, he became chairman of hotel licensing company GuestHouse International and served as president for one year. In 2002, he became vice chairman of Barnhill’s Buffet, Inc., and served as the president and chief executive officer of the company until early 2004.
After his last electoral defeat, he returned to his successful businesses while still maintaining an eye on public service. Keet has served on a number of committees and boards, including those of Arkansas Children’s Hospital, Arkansas Easter Seals, and Arkansas Literacy Commission. He has been honored with a number of awards, including the FBI Community Service Award, Outstanding Legislator by the Arkansas Education Association, and Arkansas National Humanitarian Award presented by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. He also served as chairman of the Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission.
Keet owns or is actively involved in several restaurants and businesses throughout the country. The most locally visible, Taziki’s Mediterranean Café, was founded by Keet and his sons in 2008 and had grown to almost twenty locations by 2021.
He and his wife, Margaret Osborn Keet, have four children.
For additional information:
Ault, Larry. “National Conference Honors Keet, Stewart for Humanitarianism.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 7, 1995, p. 2B.
Jim Keet Campaign Collection. Museum of American History, Cabot Public Schools, Cabot, Arkansas.
“Keet to Shoot for Congress.” Arkansas Gazette, March 14, 19190, p. 6B.
CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas
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