HARRISON, Ark. — The aging Arkansas legend journeyed through the hills of the Ozarks this week, past a barbershop advertising $8 haircuts and a boutique promoting personally inscribed Bibles, to reach the Boone County Courthouse here on Harrison’s public square.
David Pryor — a former congressman, governor and U.S. senator — had stirred crowds in this square many times before, including in 1974, when he campaigned on the courthouse steps alongside an underdog congressional candidate named Bill Clinton.
This time, Pryor had another underdog in mind.
“Hi, David Pryor here, Mark’s dad. Can I stick a sticker on you?” Pryor said to a stranger walking past him on the street. Pryor made a similar introduction to everyone he encountered, nearly emptying his roll of campaign stickers.
Pryor’s son Mark, is a Democratic senator running for his third term in a state with an independent streak but which has followed the rest of the Deep South in a sharp turn to the right. Mark Pryor — the last remaining Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation — is in serious danger of defeat in next month’s midterm elections, when Republicans are poised to retake the governorship and other state offices.
Enter David Pryor, who is on a rescue mission to preserve his family’s political dynasty and keep the Democratic Party itself from extinction here. A popular and populist figure in Arkansas for 30 years until his 1997 retirement, Pryor, 80, is returning to small towns such as Harrison with a folksy, personalized pitch for his embattled son.
Boone County illustrates his challenge. Clinton carried Boone in his 1992 presidential campaign, as did Mark Pryor in his 2008 Senate race. But in 2012, this poor, culturally conservative and rural jurisdiction backed Republican Mitt Romney over President Obama by 73 percent to 25 percent.
This week, David Pryor’s host told him the local Democratic Party had become so weak that Mark was likely to lose Boone to Republican Tom Cotton. But that didn’t hold the elder Pryor back.
“We’re invading,” he said as he and his wife, Barbara, walked into one storefront after another, offering stickers to secretaries and shopkeepers. “We’re the martians.”
Pryor walked through the offices of the county tax collector and clerk — Republicans both — offering a sticker here and a sticker there. He popped into the dusty room storing linen-bound books of mortgage records — “I just like to smell it,” he said, taking in a deep breath.
Then Pryor bumped into Tommy Creamer, the county treasurer and, yes, a Republican.
“This is the money bags,” Pryor said, reaching out to shake Creamer’s hand.
“Oh, I’m just the courthouse greeter,” the treasurer replied.
“That’s what I want to be,” Pryor quipped. “A Wal-Mart greeter.”
Former House speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. famously said, “All politics is local.” In Arkansas, as Pryor likes to say, all politics is personal. In his day, Pryor was a celebrated master of flesh-pressing politicking. And even with old age slowing him down, Pryor remains smooth and quick-witted. He walked into a bank, quickly glanced at the loan agent’s nameplate, looked the woman in the eyes and said, “Tracy, is that you? I’m David Pryor, Mark’s dad.”
On their son’s behalf this year, the Pryors loaded up the trunk of their Toyota Avalon with Pryor yard signs, stickers, pins and paper fans. They have visited about 55 of the state’s 75 counties so far.
David passed down his campaign logo (red, white and blue stripes across the shape of Arkansas) to Mark, and the stickers and fans they have handed out are vintage leftovers from David’s past campaigns.
The Pryors stroll into cafes, auto garages, courthouses, senior centers, banks and bakeries — anywhere they might find people willing to shake their hands, wear their stickers and vote for their son.
“We’re campaigning for Mark because everybody likes mamas and daddies,” Barbara Pryor told a captive voter.
“We call ourselves ‘The Antique Roadshow,’ ” David Pryor said in an interview. He added, “Barbara and I decided that early on in this campaign we would do what we could, especially out in the smaller communities of Arkansas, the smaller counties, that we would go back and try to resurrect some long friendships.”
In Johnson, the Pryors reminisced with Mimi Baldwin Blackwood, who babysat young Mark when David was busy campaigning for governor. In Jasper, they greeted Eddie “Catfish” Jones, who told them he had been voting for Pryors for 40-plus years. “Nothin’ but Democrats,” Jones said.
Mark Pryor said in an interview that his dad “loves seeing people, he loves the issues, he loves getting around the state and seeing a lot of his old friends and old allies from around the state. It’s been great for he and my mother.”
But as the Pryors revisited old haunts in places once hospitable to David, they encountered some hostility when the subject turned to Mark’s campaign. During breakfast at Ozark Cafe in Berryville, David approached a man wearing a “Jesus is the answer” hat.
“This is David Pryor. I’m Mark’s dad,” he said. Putting his hand on the man’s shoulder, Pryor continued, “I hope you can help Mark.”
“Don’t believe I can,” replied the man, J.R. Dotson, 70, who shook his head.
“What’s the issue?” Pryor asked.
“All of the above,” Dotson said. “I don’t think I want to get into it here in this cafe.”
Later, when a reporter asked Dotson about the encounter, he said: “I ain’t got no use for him. I’m not a Democrat. I vote for the man, but not Democrats.”
Gary Youngblood, 73, was wearing overalls and playing dominoes with his buddies at a senior center when Pryor stopped in to give them campaign flyers.
“I’ll tell ya, Obama’s made more Republicans out of Democrats around here,” Youngblood said. “But I’m planning on voting for Mark. My wife is, too. She don’t like Mr. Cotton.”
In the Senate, David Pryor was regarded as a gentleman. Some of his closest friends in Washington were Republicans: Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming, John C. Danforth of Missouri and Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon. “We never spoke in anger,” Pryor said in the interview. “We never tried to play gotcha.”
Mark learned politics at his father’s knee. As David said: “He is someone who is a bridge-builder. He reaches out across party lines. He doesn’t look at red and blue; he looks at red, white and blue.”
But the Senate race this year has been anything but gentlemanly. Super PACs and other groups with no ties to the state have spent tens of millions of dollars here on a crush of negative television advertisements tearing down both candidates.
This gets the old gentleman angry. Addressing a group of seniors in Jasper, a mountain town near the Buffalo River, David Pryor bemoaned the “phantom contributions and secret PACs” that he said were fueling Cotton’s campaign.
“They don’t know where Ponca is,” Pryor said, referencing a town of 13 residents he would visit later that day. “They don’t know where Camden is or Hampton is or Mountain View is. They don’t care. What they want is someone who will vote their interest. . . . They’re trying to own him.”
Randy Laverty, a flamboyant former Democratic state senator who hosted Pryor in Jasper, rallied the seniors: “You know, we’ve been kind of whopped out a little bit because [the Republicans] have had the momentum and we haven’t. . . . You’ll have to dust off your old campaign britches, dust off your asbestos pantyhose.”
Laverty led Pryor on a tour through the downtown. They went in the old courthouse and Laverty showed him where some plaster chipped during a 1950s shootout. They visited a cafe, where a photo of a young Clinton posing behind the county judge’s desk hung on the wall.
As they walked toward the bank to greet folks inside, Laverty reminded Pryor that Jasper nowadays tends to go Republican: “A lot of these people are wrong, but we’ll go see ’em anyway.”
“Maybe we’ll soften ’em up,” Pryor said. Holding his roll of stickers, he walked into the bank.
“Hi there, David Pryor, Mark’s dad. Mighty good to see you . . . ”