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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Dale Bumpers, June 17, 1974. Interview A-0026. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Crumbling power structures in southern politics

Bumpers again discusses the changing political landscape of the South, focusing specifically on the election of Winthrop Rockefeller as the first Republican governor of Arkansas since Reconstruction. Rockefeller was elected in 1966 and served until Bumpers defeated him during the 1970 gubernatorial campaign. Bumpers argues that Rockefeller's election was particularly significant because it demonstrated that the political power structures that had shaped southern politics for years were beginning to change. Bumpers suggests that it was this same phenomenon that allowed him to enter the political scene around the same time.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Dale Bumpers, June 17, 1974. Interview A-0026. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

WALTER DE VRIES:
Could I ask you something about the Republican party? Which was really no party at all until '64 and '66 when a Winthrop Rockefeller won. It seems to us that what the party, what Rockefeller did in those four years was provide a climate where somebody like you could get elected or nominated in the Democratic party. What it in effect did was reform, or maybe revitalize is a better word, the Democratic party.
GOV. DALE BUMPERS:
I've said that many times.
WALTER DE VRIES:
Have you?
GOV. DALE BUMPERS:
Yes. I think that's the very analysis. It would have been-Gov. Rockefeller's election was probably for the first time a repudiation of what people thought was machine politics in this state. And it was his election and his subsequent championing of a very significant reforms in the state that sort of laid the foundation that made it possible for a guy like me to be elected.
JACK BASS:
And to do some of the things you did as governor.
GOV. DALE BUMPERS:
Right. No, no. I'll back down on the last statement. Retract that. That's not necessarily true.
JACK BASS:
I was thinking of the climate for tax reform, for reorganization, the constitutional convention.
GOV. DALE BUMPERS:
No, no. The state was in terrible financial condition when I became governor. The legislature knew it and the people knew it. And the fact that Gov Rockefeller had tried to get a tax reform bill through and was unable to was simply, I think, a resentment of him by the legislature. Plus the fact that his tax proposals were totally unrealistic. He proposed a $100 million increase back at a time when that would have been like a 40% increase in the general revenues of the state. And the state was just not prepared to accept a tax increase of that magnitude. And the legislature resented his even putting them on the spot to vote on such a thing. And when I was elected two things happened. One is the legislature and the people both knew the state was in serious financial straits. I mean we could survive, but it was in serious financial straits so far as trying to do more things for education and prison reform, medical care and all the things that we needed to do. And the other thing was. There were two things. One, the proposal I submitted was a realistic proposal. And two, the legislature was so happy to have a Democrat back in the governor's office that they were anxious to cooperate to the fullest. That combination of things made that tax reform possible. The reorganization bill was, admittedly, an idea of Gov Rockefeller's. But there was nothing unique about it. Because in the constitutional convention in 1970, you know, this was the total approach of constitutional reform. That was reorganization of state government. And so during the campaign of 1970 I fervently championed the adoption of the constitution that was being proposed in 1970. Which carried with it essentially all of the organizational reform that we subsequently implemented by legislation. Many people thought it could not be done by legislation. They thought it had to be done constitutionally. [Interruption on tape.] I think the biggest impact was breaking up a very strong political power structure in the state that had dominated politics in this state for many years. That's why I say his election gave a chance to somebody like me. It was the fact that his election, as I say, pretty well destroyed another myth. And that is that-it wasn't a myth at that time, it was real. That there was a power structure in the state who had been accustomed to naming the candidates and getting them elected.
JACK BASS:
You talking about the utilities?
GOV. DALE BUMPERS:
Well I'm talking about not necessarily the utilities. But they were people who like to dominate state politics in their respective areas. Maybe a county. Maybe a region. Maybe it was somebody who did business with the state. But it was a very significant group of them all over the state. And so he diminished their influence when he got elected. And then my election, I think, finalized that because there was nobody for me except the people. You know, I didn't have any of that. When I ran the first time I just had none of that. Power structure or vested interest behind me.