Peggy Sue Newlon Jeffries (1940–)
Peggy Jeffries was a senator from Fort Smith (Sebastian County) in the Eightieth and Eighty-first Arkansas General Assemblies, serving from 1995 to 1998. Although she served only one term, she was a significant forerunner of the extreme Republican Party lawmakers who would take over state government more than a decade after she left.
Peggy Sue Newlon was born on June 4, 1940, in St. James, Missouri, to Thelma Geneva Edgar Newlon, who was a homemaker, and Graydon Hopkins Newlon, a truck driver with England Brothers Truck Line who also had a career as a construction foreman with Southwestern Bell Telephone Company. Due to her father’s work, she attended first grade in Fayetteville (Washington County) and fifth grade in Mena (Polk County) but otherwise attended Fort Smith public schools at Trusty Elementary and Fort Smith Senior High School (Northside), graduating in 1958. In high school, Peggy served as a student council representative for three years, volunteered with Junior Red Cross, was a member of the Sock & Buskin drama club, and was chosen Bruin Beauty.
Newlon met Jerry Jeffries in junior high school, and they married when they were students at Hendrix College in Conway (Faulkner County). They moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where her husband attended the University of Tennessee College of Dentistry, and Newlon, with three years of college, taught fifth grade at St. Thomas Catholic School in Memphis and at Earle Elementary School. After her husband received his degree, he served as a U.S. Army dentist at Fort Riley, Kansas. Newlon attended Kansas State University, graduating in 1967 with a BSE in early childhood development with minors in history and political science.
When the family returned to Fort Smith with their three children, Jeffries worked as a child development associate trainer for Head Start and taught at Country Aire Kindergarten and Parker Elementary School in Fort Smith. Her other community involvement included serving as Parent Teacher Association (PTA) president, chair of the Fort Smith Christian Women’s Club, and member of the boards of the Community Rescue Mission and Girl Scouts of America.
Jeffries was also active in the First Baptist Church of Fort Smith, serving on the executive board of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, teaching in the children’s program and adult Sunday School classes, and volunteering with Mission Action, a program for underprivileged junior high girls. She organized the Salt and Light Committee to promote public involvement by the congregation, using discussion materials from the SBC Christian Life Commission, the Eagle Forum, and the League of Women Voters; registering voters; and hosting elected officials.
Soon, Jeffries became involved with the local Republican Party. She was chair of the Sebastian County Republican Women, vice chair of the Sebastian County Republican Committee, and secretary of the Arkansas Federation of Republican Women. Her involvement with state government began in 1983 when she testified against lowering the age for compulsory school attendance from seven to six years of age, a recommendation from the Arkansas Education Standards Committee, chaired by Arkansas first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Jeffries became dissatisfied with incumbent Republican state senator Travis Miles of Fort Smith, because she said his fourteen-year voting record was indistinguishable from the “opposition party” and he had praised U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders for a “tremendous job” as State Health Department director. When she was unable to recruit an opponent for him in 1994, she filed for the District 11 Senate seat herself. She said she wanted to give people a choice for a conservative Republican. With the slogan “Principled Leadership,” Jeffries told fellow Republicans that there were “well-defined differences between the Republican and Democrat [sic] Parties, and I intend to reflect clearly those distinctive values which have made the Republican Party great.” She promised to hold the line on taxes and to support welfare reform, private school vouchers, and local control of public schools. Despite being outspent in the campaign, she upset Miles in the Republican primary by 57–43 percent and had no opposition in the general election.
Jeffries began serving as senator in 1995 and served one four-year term, during which she was the only woman in the Arkansas Senate. She served on the Transportation and Legislative Affairs committees during her first session and was on the Education Committee in 1997–1998. She opposed legislation that would give public school teachers’ unions binding arbitration rights and legislation requiring home-schooled and private school students to take high school exit exams. Jeffries sponsored bills, none of which were enacted, that required school boards to adopt procedures for students’ parents to review the list of books in the school libraries, curriculum, and instructional materials; to require the election of state Board of Education members; to require information and a twenty-four-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions; and to abolish school exit examinations. She began and continued to sponsor Christian Heritage Week in Arkansas.
Senator Jeffries proclaimed herself to be “of the conservative wing of the Republican Party.” She was a delegate to the 1996 Republican National Convention and represented Arkansas on the Platform Committee. She received recognition in 1995 from the Arkansas Christian Educators Association, the Bulldog Award from the Arkansas Family Council in 1995, the Citation for Meritorious Service from the American Legion in 1997, the Senator Doug Brandon Memorial Good Government Award in 1997 from the Eagle Forum of Arkansas, and the Republican Pioneer award in 1998 from the Sebastian County Republican Committee.
After her four-year term, Jeffries decided not to run for reelection in 1998. “I felt like I could accomplish the things I wanted to accomplish in other ways,” she said, and she did continue to be active in public affairs. In 2000, Jeffries and Ann Clemmer (who later served in the House) were co-chairs for Arkansas Educators for [George W.] Bush. In 2001, Governor Mike Huckabee appointed Jeffries to the state Board of Education, and she was elected Republican National Committeewoman from Arkansas. Jeffries also served as executive director of the Eagle Forum of Arkansas and as secretary of the Arkansas Club for Growth.
Jeffries’s ultra–conservativism irritated Huckabee, who (at the time) dubbed people with Jeffries’s mindset as “Shiite Republicans.” In 2015, after Huckabee announced he was running for president a second time, Jeffries became a part of the Arkansas leadership for the presidential campaign of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and described herself to the Washington Post as “Queen of the Shiites.”
For additional information:
Caillouet, Linda. “Peggy Newlon Jeffries.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 5, 1995, pp. 1D, 4D.
Jeffries, Peggy. Video interview by Lindsley Armstrong Smith, February 27, 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.
“Women Overcame in House, Senate.” Times Record, Insight, July 13, 1997, p. 2E.
Lindsley Armstrong Smith and Stephen A. Smith
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
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