Rex Nelson (1959–)

Having been a journalist, political staffer, lobbyist, and blogger, Rex Nelson is perhaps best known for his columns appearing in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He served in the administration of Mike Huckabee and on the Delta Regional Authority, and he returned to the Democrat-Gazette in 2017.

Born on September 2, 1959, in Arkadelphia (Clark County), Rex Nelson is the son of Robert “Red” Nelson and Carolyn Caskey Nelson, who had met as students at what is now Ouachita Baptist University (OBU). The third child and second son born to the family, Nelson grew up in Arkadelphia in the Ouachita Hills neighborhood, located north of the OBU campus and west of the Ouachita River. Both parents taught before entering the sporting goods business, operating a store in downtown Arkadelphia.

Attending local schools, Nelson graduated from Arkadelphia High School in 1978. While still in high school, Nelson began his journalism career with a local radio show. He attended OBU, where he continued his journalism career while also taking classes. Serving as the sports editor for the Daily Siftings Herald and as the sports director for two local radio stations, Nelson also became the play-by-play announcer for both the OBU football and men’s basketball teams. Using the money he earned working for the newspaper, he paid his way to major sporting events, such as the Cotton Bowl and the Kentucky Derby.

After graduating in December 1981, Nelson worked as a sportswriter for the Arkansas Democrat for a year before returning to Arkadelphia to become the editor of the Siftings Herald. At age twenty-three, he was the youngest editor of a daily newspaper in the state. In 1983, Nelson became the news and sports director for Arkadelphia-based radio stations KVRC-KDEL. He remained in that position until 1985, when he returned to the Democrat as the assistant sports editor under Wally Hall. After about a year in that position, Democrat editor John Robert Starr selected Nelson as the newspaper’s correspondent in Washington DC.

While in Washington, Nelson met Melissa Garcia, a Texas native; they married on October 14, 1989.

Working for the newspaper in Washington until 1989, Nelson returned to Arkansas to serve as a political consultant for financier Jackson T. Stephens and worked on the gubernatorial campaign of Tommy Robinson in 1990. Robinson lost the Republican nomination to Sheffield Nelson, who subsequently lost to Bill Clinton.

In January 1991, Nelson took the position of editor of Arkansas Business. He remained with that publication until 1992, when Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman and executive editor Griffin Smith Jr. approached him to become the first political editor for the newspaper. Accepting the position, Nelson supervised three political reporters in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and three in Washington DC, splitting his time between the two cities in the early years of the Bill Clinton presidency. Nelson also served as a radio talk show host, leading the Response to Rush program on KARN-FM.

While in this position, Nelson authored a biography, titled The Hillary Factor: The Story of America’s First Lady, about Hillary Clinton. Published in 1993 and written with Philip Martin, the work is an examination of Clinton’s early life and time as the first lady of Arkansas.

Remaining with the Democrat-Gazette for four years, Nelson entered the public sector in July 1996 when he joined the administration of Governor Mike Huckabee. A fellow graduate of Ouachita Baptist University, Huckabee took office on July 15, 1996, upon the resignation of Governor Jim Guy Tucker. As director of policy and communications, Nelson served as part of the senior management team reporting directly to the governor and supervised media relations, speechwriting, and strategic planning. He also supervised the press secretary. Outside of his role in the administration, Nelson also worked on Huckabee’s reelection campaigns.

In 2005, President George W. Bush appointed Nelson to one of two presidentially appointed seats on the Delta Regional Authority. In this role, Nelson worked to create partnerships in states located along the lower Mississippi River in order to improve the quality of life for the citizens residing in those areas.

Nelson began publishing his popular Rex Nelson’s Southern Fried blog in July 2009. A collection of entries focused on food, culture, football, and other Arkansas and Southern topics, the blog allowed Nelson to return to his first love of journalism while holding other positions.

Returning to the private sector in 2009, Nelson joined the Communications Group as Senior Vice President of Government Relations and Public Outreach. In January 2011, Nelson became the president of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities. In this position, he worked with eleven private institutions of higher education in the state to provide public and governmental affairs support. In May 2015, he became the director of corporate community relations for Simmons First National Corp. Continuing his work on the Southern Fried blog, Nelson published Southern Fried: Going Whole Hog in a State of Wonder (Butler Center Books, 2016), a book of columns originally published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Another job change came in June 2017, when Nelson returned to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to take a position as senior editor and columnist. Traveling the state, Nelson regularly writes about events in the state with detailed dives into the history of Arkansas.

Nelson resides in Little Rock with his wife. The couple has two sons, Austin and Evan. He continues to serve as the voice of the Ouachita Tigers football radio network.

For more information:
McConnell, Jerry. The Improbable Life of the Arkansas Democrat. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2016.

Nelson, Rex. Southern Fried: Going Whole Hog in a State of Wonder. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2016.

Nelson, Rex, and Philip Martin. The Hillary Factor: The Story of America’s First Lady. New York: Gallen Publishing, 1993.

Rex Nelson’s Southern Fried. http://www.rexnelsonsouthernfried.com/ (accessed November 19, 2020).

David Sesser
Henderson State University

Last Updated: 11/19/2020