Magazine October 2018

Love & Politics: Greg Hale and Mica Strother Make Their Mark

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By Kitty Chism | Photography by David Yerby

They live in a spacious remodel she designed on a quiet street in Little Rock’s Prospect Terrace neighborhood, and everything about the gracious address seems designed to offset the frenetic exploits of the twosome who live there. Somehow its humble lines and quiet calm seems to counter the glittering trappings of their political junkets together, rubbing elbows with the political and powerful in moments great and tragic — like the night his client Hillary Clinton lost her bid for president two years ago.

The light and airy place seems assembled to assuage such moments for Mica Strother and Greg Hale, the better to move forward all over again. The main floor is freckled with native Miller’s Mud pottery and other tony appointments from their travels together to Europe, Africa and Central America. The intent is a refuge from careers that have immersed them in big causes around giant personalities on state and national stages.

Approaching their mid-40s, the two have already made big marks in demanding worlds that offer little wiggle room for error. Yet somehow they keep their engines fired for even more, largely because they have each other’s backs whenever and wherever their dizzying days demand.

It has been this way since they were married 10 years ago.

“We know what’s important to each other, and we’re there for whatever that is. We make it work,” Mica says of their spousal pact.

Turns out their combined cache of talents and connections helps them both get more done in separate political and nonprofit arena – think the Razorback Foundation for her and the Walton Family Foundation for him at this moment – and thus their story continues to be about as Arkansan as you can get.

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Greg grew up outside DeQueen, population 6,700, along the state’s southwestern border with Oklahoma. He was the third child and only son of a second-generation cattle farmer and school-teacher/activist mom in the hilly grassland backcountry of Sevier County.

Today, his family’s cattle-raising pastureland, two and a half hours from Little Rock, remains his retreat from the hectic pace of regular flights from New York and Washington to Bentonville and Los Angeles, doing major event planning. That includes sound, light and staging as well as public relations for big campaigns like Hiring Our Heroes, a seven-year initiative of the U.C. Chamber to help veterans get jobs. But the cattle farm has also allowed him to teach his stepson Eli, 16, a little something about a cattle-breeding sideline business that will help pay his college tuition in a few years.

Mica, meanwhile, grew up in larger and hillier Mountain Home, population 12,000, near Arkansas’ northern border with Missouri. She is the youngest of three daughters of Baxter County parents who pursued their own jurisprudence degrees and careers while they were raising their family.

So naturally, her high energy mom, a cheerleader in her day, pushed her daughters to also pursue advanced degrees like the one in law Mica earned at age 27.

She went after that degree, Mica admits, because her first job out of college was volunteering on Jim Guy Tucker’s gubernatorial campaign. The job she got in his office turned out to be the best she could ever have landed, preparing her for the much bigger positions she has had since – including her position as the Razorback Foundation’s Little Rock director.

Her task for Tucker was processing resumes for his appointments to the state’s more than 350 boards and commissions, important work because ultimately these are people who shape nitty-gritty public policy and add diverse viewpoints to the process. But there are legal requirements for appointees. She traveled around the state to vet candidates for everything from the medical examining and bank boards to advisory committees on storage tanks and pensions.

As a result, “there is probably not a town in Arkansas today where if I got a flat tire there I wouldn’t know someone to call,” she laughs, gently tossing back her shoulder-length blond hair.

The other part of that job helped her discover what she really loves to do, which is rally people to causes and inspire them to donate their money, skills or perspectives, not unlike the work of a politician.

She was forced to leave the governor’s office when Tucker left, but, ever the optimist, she viewed that moment as her cue to go off to law school for a degree she’s rarely used. No sooner had she earned it than she joined the political consulting coterie at Thompson Group, which was then handling Mike Beebe’s 2002 attorney general race.

She joined Beebe’s staff and stayed with him, which explains the multiple candid photos and collectibles around her office in Simmons Tower from her days raising millions as his campaign finance chief when he ran for governor in 2006 and 2010, then heading his community relations and, yes, appointments divisions.

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“She has a quick mind that can analyze things well, but she is also good with people, putting them at ease,” Beebe saYS. “She’s dedicated, honest, loyal — and tough when she needs to be — and with training, she became a terrific fundraiser.”

Coincidentally, Beebe’s office is also where she befriended Greg, when he was working on Beebe’s 2006 campaign, doing what he does best: planning, producing and staging big events and constituent rallies.
The two were married in 2008.

Whether she just missed the campaign landscape or suddenly realized she could manage even more, including several volunteer leadership posts with her Baptist church, high energy Mica started her own consulting firm on the side about four years after her 2008 marriage, about the time Eli, her son from her first marriage, turned 10.

Her new firm was quickly hired to do fundraising and promotion work for Mark Pryor’s reelection to the U.S. Senate, as well as Mike Ross’s second run for Congress, not to mention a few efforts for the nonprofits City Year and ARVets.

Meanwhile Greg, with his straggly beard, high forehead and affable charm, had long since discovered his niche in the political and nonprofit realms. He was having the time of his life orchestrating big, boosterish candidate rallies and rousing nonprofit assemblies of thousands and tens of thousands on national and international stages. His skill as an advance man and venue orchestrator was nothing he’d ever studied or planned for or even imagined doing. Yet colleagues say his talent for visualizing the possibilities of a backdrop is extraordinary.

“He takes a moment like Hillary’s announcement on Roosevelt Island, and he crafts it with the sort of symbolism and artistry that will make that moment live on to eternity,” says Adriene Elrod, a Democratic strategist in New York.

His theatrics are so fine-tuned that he and his team know exactly where someone should stand and when they should move and where the cameras should point and where lights should beam and how much the backdrops should show at every single moment of an event to “tell the story,” he says.

And his ideas are magical.

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“He is a master at making an iconic moment out of bare space,” says Paul Neaville, who followed Hale to D.C. to take a chance at this field back in 1996. “Now we are business partners, the ying and the yang. But he’s the creative one. He has the vision. He took one look at the Javits Center and said: ‘This atrium is awesome. This is where this event has to be.’”

Oddly enough, he had difficulty choosing a college major at Fayetteville, pursuing everything from speech therapy to agribusiness to elementary education, before settling on political science his junior year. Then, on the advice of his advisor, who just happened to be the late Clinton confidant and professor Diane Blair, he and a few friends rented a U-Haul and drove to Washington to see power in action and try to figure out a way to be part of it while an Arkansan was in the White House.

And it worked. He volunteered. He snagged a small role on the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection campaign, then worked more and more with the advance team of the White House responsible for the preparation of events on the road. A stint on Clinton’s post-presidency team in New York followed, then the 2000 Al Gore campaign, then the 2004 John Kerry campaign and then events preceding Hillary’s 2008 presidential primary bid. And what he learned is that what’s most important for candidate events are the styling details, such as who is in the line of sight of the main TV camera, what the background for the podium is and how clearly the candidate’s voice comes over the crowds of thousands, not to mention the millions watching from home.

So what he and his team imagined until mid-evening Nov. 8, 2016, was what all of the polls had shown: Hillary had done it. And there was no doubt among Greg’s team, who had secured Manhattan’s 15,000-seat Jacob K. Javits Center for her celebration, that her win was the sort of historic moment that required pulling out all of the stops, including appearances by Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen.

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“We were going to win, no question,” Hale says. “We had just had a rally in Raleigh where there was clearly this amazing energy…and what we conceived for that glass-ceilinged Javits Center atrium was going to be this incredible visual, on a stage shaped like the United States with her standing on Texas and confetti that looked like pieces of glass [like the metaphorical one that Clinton hoped to shatter for women] raining down on her. And we just knew it had to be a work of art because every eyeball in the world would be watching.”

But of course Clinton was back in her Peninsula Hotel suite listening to the results state by state. So she never even came over. It was nearly 4 a.m. when the die was cast, the result clear and before the next morning, Greg’s team had to dismantle the Javits Center, snag a new venue and build a suitable backdrop, the lights, the flags, the blue drape, the teleprompters, the microphone, all before 11 a.m.

His final staging would be her walk to the podium with her husband, daughter and son-in-law to concede before the nation and a bevy of shocked, weeping staffers.

“This loss hurts, but please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it…There is more work to do,” she told her supporters. But behind the scene of her stately acceptance, she was worrying greatly about her venue chief.

“It was so sweet,” Hale says, “She was asking: ‘How’s Greg? How’s HE doing?’”

Truth is, his right foot was soon firmly pressed on the accelerator of his white Toyota Tacoma headed directly to his cattle farm. His next move would be to relax, recover, gather his wits and consider what other projects might lie ahead. Along the way, one hard-fought campaign after another, political or otherwise, he had learned how not to be defined by loss.

Pondering the next opportunity, the next charge forward just works better.

“One of my favorite things is walking into a room and seeing it as a blank slate on which my team can create the perfect backdrop for whatever is set to take place there,” he says. “We can add the visual and the audio and the best angle and lights to that historic moment. That’s fun.”

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