Almost immediately after his defeat in 1980, Clinton began working on his comeback. He hired Betsey Wright, an old political ally from Texas, a tough realist and no-nonsense political operator. Wright acted as Clinton's keeper and indispensable strategist and counselor.
Clinton's comeback began with a televised apology for past mistakes, followed by an early start on a relentless campaign. Arkansans had rarely seen a campaigner of his caliber. Both the primary and the general election proved to be bitter battles, but he was the first Arkansas governor to recover from a defeat at the polls to regain office. The idea of the Comeback Kid was born.
From the collection of the Old State House Museum
While detractors accused Clinton of excessive caution following his re-election, he had definitely learned to choose his battles more carefully. Education was where Clinton drew his line in the political sand, an area which Arkansas ranked next to the last in the nation.
In 1983 Clinton managed to pass legislation creating an Education Standards Committee charged with setting higher standards for the state's schools to be adopted by 1984. School districts would then have until 1987 to implement the standards or face consolidation. Clinton appointed his wife, Hillary, to head the committee.
Because the nuts and bolts of higher standards were delayed for several years, the plan generated little controversy. What was one more government committee after all? The Clintons knew, however, that the state's formula for distributing educational aid was flawed and likely to be ruled unconstitutional which in fact occurred on May 31, 1983. Confronted by a crisis as result of the court's action, Hillary Clinton's committee sprang into action; it held hearings in every county in the state. Suddenly the issue of educational reform was at the center of public consciousness.
In September, 1983 Clinton delivered a speech on education on virtually every television station in Arkansas and called a special session to enact the proposed reforms. After the longest special session in Arkansas history, Clinton emerged with the plan he wanted. It included higher standards for student achievement, a more equitable funding formula, teacher testing, and the first sales tax increase in twenty-six years designed to fund the plan.
Other accomplishments of his administration included appointing blacks to every state board, the creation of an ethics committee to oversee public officials, and unprecedented success in attracting industry to Arkansas.
Clinton would easily win his next three bids for reelection. In 1986 he was elected to the first four-year gubernatorial term since Reconstruction. Clinton was reelected in 1990, pledging to serve out his four years. Only a year later, however, he held a press conference at the Old State House announcing his candidacy for the presidency. Thirteen months later Clinton was back at the site with tens of thousands of well wishers to celebrate his victory on election night. Arkansas had produced its first president.
Next: Jim Guy Tucker, Jr.