Political Animals Club

The Political Animals Club of Little Rock (Pulaski County), an organization consisting of people interested in Arkansas politics, was formed by James L. “Skip” Rutherford in 1983. Rutherford, who has been dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service since 2006, had left the staff of U.S. Senator David Pryor shortly before the formation of the club and moved to the private sector to work for Mack McLarty, chief executive officer at Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. (Arkla). Rutherford wanted there to be a place for those with a strong interest in politics to gather on an occasional basis and talk about what was going on in Arkansas. He wanted the group to hear from politicians, political consultants, and journalists, becoming a “nonpartisan grassroots organization of community leaders and activists who meet regularly to discuss politics and issues.”

Rutherford asked some people to join him at the Coachman’s Inn for breakfast. The Coachman’s Inn, owned by Little Rock financiers Jack and Witt Stephens, was widely known as a political gathering spot. It stood where the downtown Little Rock post office now stands. Judge William J. Smith was invited to talk about Orval Faubus and the desegregation of Central High School. Afterward, the group agreed to meet again, with some bringing their friends.

At first, the membership was limited to people who were not running for or did not hold elective office. When Rutherford announced in 1987 that he was going to run for the Little Rock School Board, he stepped down as chairman. The Political Animals Club had moved from the Coachman’s Inn to the Little Rock Hilton on University Avenue by that time. Little Rock attorney George Jernigan took over as the second chairman of the Political Animals Club in 1987. Jernigan was succeeded by his law partner, Russ Meeks. The fourth chairman of the organization was Bob Lyford, the senior vice president and general counsel for the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. (AECC). During Lyford’s tenure, the club often held 7:00 a.m. breakfast meetings in the ornate conference room of the AECC headquarters in southwest Little Rock.

In January 2007, Lyford handed over the chairmanship to Steve Ronnel, a Little Rock businessman who had worked in the White House during Bill Clinton’s administration. Ronnel switched the meeting times from breakfast to lunch and moved the meetings to the grand hall of the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion. Ronnel also began the Political Animals Scholarship, an annual $3,000 college scholarship given to a public high school student body president or senior class president from Pulaski County. The first four recipients of the scholarship were Cyrus Bahrassa of Little Rock Central High School in 2008, Darrion Coleman of Little Rock Parkview High School in 2009, Briana Davis of Little Rock Parkview High School in 2010, and Chloe Cox of North Little Rock High School in 2011.

Ronnel served as chairman for four years. Rex Nelson, the president of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities (AICU), took over as the sixth chairman in January 2011.

The Political Animals Club is not a highly structured organization. No dues are collected, there is no board of directors or staff, and anyone can join. Volunteers run the organization, which has an e-mail list of almost 1,300 names. The average attendance for meetings is about 200. The club meets nine or ten times per year.

A wide variety of Arkansas and national political figures has spoken to the club through the years. The Arkansas governor traditionally addresses the club once a year. Members of the state’s congressional delegation also are regular speakers. Washington DC political analyst Charlie Cook has visited the club consistently for more than a decade. Actor and political commentator Ben Stein was a past speaker. Heavyweight Washington pundits ranging from David Broder to David Gergen to Joe Klein have appeared before the club. The focus, however, has always been on Arkansas politics and those who make it such a colorful spectacle.

Meetings were off the record for many years. They are now on the record and typically receive heavy media coverage. The success of the Political Animals Club in Little Rock led to the formation of the Northwest Arkansas Political Animals Club by Richard Hudson, the vice chancellor for government and community relations at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County). For several years, a Political Animals Club was active in Hot Springs (Garland County), but it no longer exists.

For additional information:
Nelson, Rex. “A Different Kind of Animal.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 19, 2011, p. 9B.

Rex Nelson
Arkansas’ Independent Colleges & Universities


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