June 2018 Issue
A story told in two parts, with an ending that’s yet to be written
by Caleb Talley
Photography by Meredith Mashburn
Steve Clark’s story is one that has to be told in two parts. There’s an Act I and an Act II, both equally critical in telling the whole story. And his is a story of redemption, the Arkansas kind.
Clark was born and raised in Leachville, Arkansas, a small community in Mississippi County about 30 miles from Jonesboro. And from a young age, he had an itch for public service.
His family was no stranger to political participation. His mother’s side of the family had held the same seat in the Arkansas Senate for more than 50 years. His great-uncle was lieutenant governor, and his father was a city council member.
“In my family, you were either a farmer, a preacher, schoolteacher or a politician,” says Clark from inside his office at the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce. Classical music plays quietly on the stereo behind his desk. “When I was a boy, I thought the greatest political position was to be on the levee board. I’d heard the stories of the great flood, and when you’re on the levee board, you get to protect everyone from the next one.”
Before starting his senior year of high school, Clark’s grandfather had gotten him a job as a congressional page for Rep. Ezekiel “Took” Gathings. He protested. After all, he was class president, and leaving even for a few weeks would separate him from his constituents.
But with two new suits bought for him by his grandmother at Goldsmith’s in Memphis, he was off to Washington, D.C. He would spend his afternoons talking shop and eating graham crackers with the West Memphis congressman over a Coca-Cola.
The opportunity opened his eyes to the political world on a scale he hadn’t fathomed. “I knew politics on a very small scale,” he says. “But I began to see it from the macro. I was fascinated.”
Clark went on to study politics at Arkansas State University and law at the University of Arkansas. Along the way, he ran for and won just about every collegiate and fraternal office he could. He practiced law for all of about seven weeks before he was appointed to a municipal judgeship in Brinkley at the young age of 24. He was green, and he knew it. “I didn’t know how to be a judge,” he says with a wide grin. “I remember asking the chief of police to cough if I started to get out of line.”
That post didn’t last long, either. By 25, Clark was serving as assistant dean at the UA School of Law. There, he became friends with a young Bill and Hillary Clinton, both of whom were brought on board during his three-year tenure.
“We liked each other immediately because we talked about the same things,” Clark says of Bill, who he refers to almost exclusively as ‘The President.’ “It was clear, even from a young age, his trajectory was up. We used to play intramural basketball together. He was single when I met him, so we fed him a lot.”
Clark’s ambition led him to seek a position on Gov. David Pryor’s special legislative team. With permission from the university, he took a leave of absence to fulfill that post for about seven weeks. He was a perfect fit. “My uncle was in the Senate, so I guess that did help,” he says.
A few months later, Pryor asked him to be his chief of staff. “I said, ‘Why me? I’m 29 years old. I’m just a kid,’” Clark remembers. “I’m not afraid to make a decision, and I could make a decision. But I was 29 years old, and I could make a really bad decision. Pryor said, ‘As long as what you’re doing is right, and you’re doing it for the right reasons, you’ll be fine.’”
With a week to think on the offer and some coaxing from his great uncle, former Lt. Gov. Nathan Gordon, he took the job. In a matter of days, Clark was the second most powerful man in state government.
“I had been there for about six weeks, and the Democrat had a big feature story on me. I had on a shirt with cuff links, contrasting collar. The headline said, ‘Possibly the second most powerful man in state government.’ I really did like that story, and I have about 100 copies left if you want one. I’ll sign it, and it’ll only cost you about $100,” he says with a laugh.
It wasn’t long after his appointment that Clark began to express interest in running for office. He told Pryor, offering to resign his post. The governor instead tried to convince Clark to stay on as he prepared to run for the U.S. Senate. Clark considered it, but ultimately chose to run for attorney general. Hillary Clinton was one of the first to know.
“I remember having a glass of wine with Hillary one day,” says Clark. “I told her, ‘If your husband runs for governor, congress, the senate or becomes U.S. Attorney General, I think I’m going to run for Arkansas Attorney General.’ She said, ‘That’s terrific. But I need just one favor. Lose a little weight. I can’t tell people to vote for my little fat friend Steve.’”
In 1978, Clark beat Art Givens for the Democratic nomination for Attorney General with 51 percent of the vote. With no general election opponent, the position was his. And at 31, he was the youngest state attorney general in the nation.
“Clinton was elected governor; he was 32. Paul Revere was elected secretary of state; he was 31, like me,” says Clark. “We were the youngest respective office-holders in those offices in the United States… Steve Roberts was working with The New York Times, and he came down to do a story on us. I met him there at Dave’s, in the old train station, for a spinach salad. He said, ‘You’re young. You didn’t take me to the country club, you took me to a train station for a spinach salad. This is a new generation of politicians.’”
He was right. And as a representative of that new generation, Clark got to work for the people of Arkansas. He advocated for missing and exploited children. He advocated for victims’ rights, seatbelt and child safety seat laws, nursing home reform. He argued eight cases before the Supreme Court, a state record that still holds. He won five of those cases, which he refers to as the “Super Bowl for attorneys.”
“It was a great time in Arkansas,” he recalls. “People wanted to move forward and do good things for people.”
He would serve for 11 years, making him the longest-serving attorney general in state history. But Clark wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to be governor, and had for years. While at the University of Arkansas, he’d mentioned it to Clinton. Bill had confessed to him that he wanted to be President. Clark told him he wanted to be governor. But they both agreed that they’d rather be Elvis. They knew the King of Rock and Roll had more influence than any politician.
In 1986, Clark thought he’d test the waters. He hired a polling firm, and a good one, too. But he didn’t like the results.
“They said I don’t register high enough on the meter,” Clark remembers. “I was bigger than a tadpole, but not bigger than a perch. And I surely wasn’t a catfish or a bass. I needed to raise the playing field and set the narrative.”
He did so by going after his old friend, Gov. Bill Clinton. In a commencement address, he took shots at Clinton over a home schooling initiative he had promoted in the previous legislative session. He told the graduates that Clinton had allowed parents to teach their kids the earth was flat and that a person was valued by the color of their skin. “That really made the governor angry,” he says, grinning. “But, all of a sudden, we were right there at the top of the page.”
They polled again. This time, he would try something different. According to Clark, the poll read: “Bill Clinton wants to run to be re-elected governor. He is the son of Lucifer, and much like Lucifer, he will lie, cheat and steal. His opponent is Steve Clark, who would also like to be governor. Though it’s not well known, it’s true he’s the blood brother of Jesus Christ. And just like Jesus, he’s pure, good and loving.”
“I still got beat by 31 points,” Clark laughs. “It was a no-go.”
Clark would try again in 1990. And this time, his chances looked greater than ever. He announced in January of that year that he would challenge Clinton for the position. Days later, the Gazette published a report that would slam the door on Clark’s dream. The report showed thousands of dollars spent by Clark on expensive dinners and outings with officials, many of whom would later deny being with him. Just 17 days after he had announced his gubernatorial bid, he was out of the race.
By July of 1990, Clark had been charged with theft of property by deception. In November, he was convicted of illegally spending $2,500 of state funds and was fined $10,000 and court costs. He resigned his post and surrendered his law license.
“I was convicted of a crime, and I deserved to be convicted of that crime,” says Clark. That familiar grin fades. “I suffered, and I should have suffered.”
He let the job get to his head. “I wanted to be a big dog,” he says. But at the time, his salary as attorney general was less than $30,000, making him one of the lowest paid elected officials in the nation. “I wanted to make a difference and help people. But I got caught up in it. I loved the sound of my own voice, my picture in the paper. I loved being at the top of the page… I stayed too long and lost my perspective. But I’m not guilty of making mistakes. I’m guilty of making bad choices.”
Clark moved away, spending time in Florida and Georgia. He was broke. He owed the IRS $400,000, he says. He recalls going outside to find his car missing, thinking it stolen only to find it had been repossessed. At his lowest, he even contemplated suicide. “I was so depressed and low that I slept under my bed because I didn’t feel worthy to sleep in it,” he says. “I cried a lot. I suffered a lot.
“I went from who’s who to who’s he overnight,” Clark adds. “It’s a quick fall, but it’s a big fall. I went from having people calling me the next governor to seeing that same person crossing the street so they wouldn’t have to talk to me.”
Clark was at his lowest. Act I ends. The curtain is drawn.
Act II begins with a phone call. Clark was at his wits’ end, and on the other line was a friend with an offer to go into business together. He’d help him get back home, or at least to Memphis. His friend loaned him the money to get there, and that’s what they did.
By 1994, the job had taken Clark to Texas. The Texas Bar Association took a chance on him, too, allowing him to take the bar. They practiced rehabilitation, and thought he’d had enough. By 2000, Clark was practicing law again.
He was on the road to redemption. And he hoped that road led back to Arkansas.
Clark applied for a pardon from Gov. Mike Huckabee, but Huckabee denied him. Clark reached out to friends, foes and even reporters, apologizing for his actions, for how he had wronged the people of Arkansas. In 2004, Huckabee finally granted Clark his pardon.
In 2007, Clark came home. He and his wife moved to Fayetteville, and in 2008, he announced his bid for mayor. After 17 years, he wanted one last run at public service. But he lost, coming in third place behind Dan Coody and current mayor Lioneld Jordan.
“In my home office, I have two yard signs,” Clark says. “One says, ‘Steve Clark for Governor.’ The other says ‘Steve Clark for Mayor.’ They’re there to remind me that the best things to happen to me were to lose those races… When I lost the governor’s race, it got me on the path to get sober. I might have been a pretty decent governor, but I was a drunk. At some point, I was going to embarrass myself, my family or my state. As painful as it was, it’s what got me to put the plug in the jug.”
When he lost the race for mayor of Fayetteville, Clark was encouraged to pursue a job with the Chamber of Commerce. They made him director. And since, the city of Fayetteville has averaged a new business a day. Through the chamber, Clark also launched the Fab Lab workshop, where students young and old have access to technology and digital fabrication for education and innovation. The Fab Lab has given him the opportunity to encourage young thinkers to follow their dreams.
“If my life stands for anything, it’s that you can begin again. I get paid to get up every morning and make Fayetteville a better place,” Clark says. “In the Fab Lab, I get to share with these kids a dream. I ask them, ‘What’s your dream? I’m telling you, your dream can come true.’”
Clark made bad choices. And he paid for them. He went from the top of the page to the bottom of the barrel. But it was that sequence of events that brought him to where he is now and made him who he is today, the most grateful man in Arkansas.
“I have no regrets,” he says. “Had I been governor, I’d have never met my wife. Had I been governor, I might not have gotten sober. I’m a better Steve Clark because I didn’t get elected governor. If you look at my life, in total, I’m one of the most blessed people you’ll ever get to meet.
“Life’s not perfect,” Clarks adds. “But life is good.”