Monroe Schwarzlose (1902–1990)

Monroe Schwarzlose was an Arkansas farmer and politician who was a perennial candidate for governor during the late 1970s and into the 1980s. In 1980, Schwarzlose stepped up to challenge Governor Bill Clinton, who had committed numerous missteps during his term. The seventy-eight-year-old turkey farmer’s improbable bid for the nomination in the Democratic primary garnered thirty-one percent of the vote, not enough to throw Clinton out of the race but giving a boost to Clinton’s Republican opponent in the general election.

Monroe Alfred Julius Schwarzlose was born on September 6, 1902, to Hermann and Nathalia Schwarzlose, and there were two children younger than Monroe: Melanie, born in 1905, and Bianca, born in 1907. The family hailed from Seguin in the Texas hill country, an area heavily populated with families descended from German immigrants who settled there in the 1840s. Like many families in the region, the Schwarzloses made their living as small family farmers and cattlemen. Schwarzlose became a cattleman in his young adult years, raising and selling beef in Texas, California, and Oregon until he was inducted into the U.S. Army in World War II. He also rode the rodeo circuit for a time. He married Sylvia Virginia Austin in Los Angeles in 1928, and they had two sons and four daughters. Monroe and Sylvia Schwarzlose were divorced by 1940. He married Dorothy Mae Cummins of Vilonia (Faulkner County) in 1943, and they had a daughter, Carol. Monroe and Dorothy divorced in 1961..

After being wounded overseas during his army service, Schwarzlose was shipped back to Camp Joseph T. Robinson, and he stayed in Arkansas after his discharge in 1945, moving briefly to Conway (Faulkner County) and finally settling in Kingsland (Cleveland County), where he raised turkeys and beef cattle. He made an early foray into politics in 1974 as a Republican candidate for an Arkansas House of Representatives seat from Cleveland County but was beaten by longtime incumbent Thomas E. Sparks, a Fordyce (Dallas County) attorney, by a three-to-one margin.

In 1978, Schwarzlose became a surprise last-minute entry into what became a five-way Democratic gubernatorial primary that was won by Arkansas’s attorney general Bill Clinton without a runoff. Schwarzlose made what was, for that time, outrageous policy proposals, such as the establishment of a state lottery and legalized casino gambling. He made the argument that people were going to gamble anyway, so the state should have a share of the proceeds. Schwarzlose garnered 5,898 votes, or just slightly over one percent. But the almost comic candidate was about to take a more serious turn.

By 1980, Governor Clinton was experiencing public-relations difficulties that included an unpopular increase in auto registration fees; continuing charges of draft-dodging during the Vietnam War; his wife Hillary’s use of her maiden name; cost overruns at the state purchasing department; and resentment over his perceived overuse of out-of-state recruits to run state agencies. Establishment Democratic Party luminaries routinely complained that they were ignored by Clinton and the young troika of advisers around him, commonly known as “the beards.” Further, the economy was falling into a serious recession in early 1980, causing a severe shortfall in revenue. In spite of these ominous headwinds, by the time the primary ticket closed in March, no Democrat had stepped forward to challenge the ambitious young incumbent, who was now being stung by charges that he was bored with the job and was looking for bigger horizons. On the last day of the filing period, Schwarzlose, clad in overalls, paid his filing fee for the party primary in cash. An Arkansas Gazette article described him as “an engaging gentleman with good home-canning recipes and some fetching stories about turkey farming and bucolic life around his home in Kingsland.”

While Clinton’s campaign war chest contained more a half million dollars by primary time, Schwarzlose spent about $4,000 going to campaign events in his rusted pickup truck, distributing canning recipes as his sole campaign literature, and making even more outrageous promises, such as a pledge to donate his farm to the Arkansas Sheriffs Association Boys’ and Girls’ Ranches for use as an orphanage. He also proposed to fix two issues at once by filling potholes with hazardous waste.

But Clinton was about to give him an issue that for many Arkansas voters symbolized the perceived waste and mismanagement of his administration. The program that created the unwanted attention was called Special Alternative Wood Energy Resources (SAWER). The program, which was designed to give work to the poor producing firewood for the elderly, received two grants totaling more than a half million dollars, but when all was said and done, had only produced twelve cords of wood.

After the state newspapers broke the story, Schwarzlose invited reporters to his farm, where he held a press conference next to two piles of cut firewood of twelve cords each. One displayed a sign reading, “Monroe’s Woodpile: Cost $25.00,” while the other was labeled, “Clinton’s Woodpile: Cost $500,000.” During the press conference, the assembled reporters were treated to the sight of a copperhead snake that slithered out of one of the woodpiles, and the candidate proceeded on camera to kill the reptile. He then told the assembled reporters that had the snake been in Clinton’s woodpile, the governor would have called in officials that knew how to identify a snake in a woodpile, costing another $40,000–$60,000.

There was no way for Clinton to effectively counter those optics, and it showed on primary election day: his challenger had collected an astonishing thirty-one percent of the vote, or 138,670 votes to Clinton’s 306,736. This gave renewed hope to the governor’s general election opponent, Democrat-turned-Republican Frank White, who rode the issues that surfaced in the primary, along with disturbances involving Cuban refugees at Fort Chaffee, to an upset victory.

Schwarzlose made three more runs for governor: as a Democrat in 1982 and 1984, gaining two and five percent of the vote, respectively; and in 1986, when he was eighty-four, in failing health and unable to afford the filing fee, running as a write-in candidate in his final bid. Veteran political journalist Ernie Dumas commented during Schwarzlose’s 1984 bid that “even Hee Haw gets tiresome on the third rerun.”

Schwarzlose moved to Conway in 1983. His health continued to fail through the remainder of the 1980s, and he died on November 24, 1990, in the John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans’ Hospital in Little Rock (Pulaski County). He is buried alongside family members in Zorn Cemetery in Guadalupe County, Texas. When asked for comment on Schwarzlose’s death, Clinton remembered him fondly in spite of the 1980 primary embarrassment, stating that he “really enjoyed knowing him.” His daughter, Carol Johnson, told the Pine Bluff Commercial, “I think he will be missed. He added a lot of color to the Arkansas political scene.”

For additional information:
Brummett, John. “Schwarzlose Gets 31 Pct.: Doesn’t Worry Clinton.” Arkansas Gazette, May 29, 1980, pp. 1A, 2A.

“Cattle Farmer Enters Race for Governor.” Arkansas Gazette, March 25, 1978, p. 5A.

DeBrine, Kelly. “Monroe Schwarzlose, Political Maverick, Dies.” Arkansas Gazette, November 25, 1990, P. 10B.

Dumas, Ernest. The Education of Ernie Dumas: Chronicles of the Arkansas Political Mind. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2019.

“Monroe Alfred Julius Schwarzlose.” Tulsa World, November 26, 1990.

Oakley, Meredith. On the Make: The Rise of Bill Clinton. Washington DC: Regnery Publishing, 1994.

Obituary of Monroe A. Schwarzlose. New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung, November 2, 1990, p. 2.

Revis Edmonds
Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism


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