Dale Bumpers, 1925-2016

Old State House Museum - Saturday, January 02, 2016

Dale Leon Bumpers, former governor of Arkansas and United States senator, died Friday, January 2, in his home. He was 90.

Bumpers was born on August 12, 1925 in the tiny Ozarks town of Charleston. His father ran a hardware store and served in the state legislature. Bumpers entered the University of Arkansas in 1943, but left to serve in the Marines. He reenrolled in 1946. In 1949 Bumpers married former classmate Betty Flanagan. That same year both his parents were killed in a car crash.

Bumpers graduated from law school in 1951 and returned to Charleston to practice law and run the family hardware store. He lost a bid for the state legislature in 1962. 

Despite the progressive role Bumpers had played in the integration of the schools in his hometown of Charleston, when he entered the governor's race in 1970, hardly anyone had ever heard of him.

The field of eight in the Democratic primary included Orval Faubus, Attorney General Joe Purcell, and Hayes McClerkin, the Speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives. Bumpers soon distinguished himself as the most "progressive" of the candidates, which earned him the early notice of the Gazette. There was also something intangible at work. Bumper's apparent honesty and sincerity came across like a breath of fresh air. Everywhere he went people took an instant liking to him. "Nobody could have beaten Bumpers in that election," Faubus later offered by way of explanation, "a man and the mood of the voters suddenly and inexplicably got in tune." After eking past Purcell for second place in the first primary, - thanks largely to his brilliant use of television in the last two weeks of the campaign - Bumpers walloped Faubus in the runoff and then Rockefeller in the general election.

Bumpers continued his political miracle into his first term. He proposed and enacted an astonishing array of reforms. Sixty state agencies were consolidated into thirteen departments whose heads formed the governor's cabinet. He made the structure of the state's income tax more progressive and increased it, earmarking the funds for education. Other measures included: an increase in teacher's salaries, more power to municipal governments, the establishment of a consumer protection agency, and major improvements to the state's prisons. A special session of the legislature also brought far reaching advancements in the care of the elderly, the handicapped, and the mentally retarded. About the only reform which Bumper proposed that the legislature failed to pass was limits on campaign expenditures.

Bumpers proved just as successful in his second term, where he fought back efforts by special interests to hijack the state's budget surplus. Instead he used the money to increase teacher's salaries and for expansion of the state's colleges. Bumpers also sought to end a spoils system that was more than a century old. He created a professional central employment office for the state with civil service style exams. This time only two of the major measures he supported failed: the Equal Rights Amendment and a proposal to purchase $10 million in scenic and wilderness land.

Doug Smith, the veteran political reporter for the Gazette, termed Bumper's tenure in office: "Damn near revolutionary, but hardly anybody noticed." 

Why was Bumpers so successful? For starters, his arrival coincided with the departure of the Old Guard, the dismantling of the Faubus machine begun under Rockefeller. Secondly, because Bumpers came literally out of nowhere, he was truly independent and not beholding to any special interests. Thirdly, the Old South was giving way to the New South and Arkansas, always something of a progressive maverick, was one step ahead of the pack. Fourthly, there was Bumper's palpable charisma, his almost evangelical aura of integrity. Thus, Dale Bumpers represented change at precisely the moment that was what the people of Arkansas wanted.

When he left the governor's mansion, Bumpers challenged and defeated J. William Fulbright, a policitcal giant, for the United States Senate, cementing for all time his reputation as the "Giant Killer" of Arkansas politics. Bumpers served four terms in the U.S. Senate.