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Shaking up the senate.


John Pagan And Vic Snyder Made Waves At The Capitol in 1991; Will The Voters Return Them In 1992?

A year ago this month, Democratic primary results shocked central Arkansas political observers. In Senate District 22, a law professor named John Pagan easily defeated direct marketing expert Rick Watkins, even though Watkins had outspent Pagan and run one of the slickest legislative races in Arkansas history. Too slick, perhaps.

In Senate District 23, a medical doctor and non-practicing attorney named Vic Snyder stunned incumbent Doug Brandon, who had served in the Senate since 1983 following three House stints -- 1963-74, 1977-78 and 1981-82.

A lot happened during the ensuing 12 months. Pagan won a sometimes bitter general election battle against Republican businessman Ron Fuller, who had been in the House since 1985 and previously had run a short, aborted campaign for the congressional seat being vacated by Tommy Robinson.

Snyder had no GOP competition, but he became involved in other legislative races, working for Democrat Phillip Wyrick in Wyrick's successful race against incumbent independent Jim Lendall. Snyder said that although many of his supporters would vote for Lendall, he feared a split in the Democratic vote would lead to the election of conservative Republican Robert A. Boyce.

Once January rolled around and the Arkansas General Assembly went to work, Pulaski County voters clearly saw what kind of men they had sent to the Senate.

By Senate standards, they were at the very least unorthodox.

Snyder introduced legislation on Jan. 17 to remove homosexual activity from the criminal definition of sodomy. Under Snyder's bill, sexual activities between people and animals would remain misdemeanors.

Snyder said the state was attempting to halt the spread of AIDS by encouraging homosexuals to have blood tests and confide in their doctors. But what they were confiding was technically illegal.

Less than two weeks after Snyder's bill was filed, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously not to pass it out of committee.

"You folks don't want this law enforced, and you know it," Snyder told the committee. "The jails would be filled with thousands and thousands of gay men and women. State government would come to a halt because of the number of employees who are gay."

Meanwhile, Pagan was campaigning unsuccessfully for rebates for those earning $20,000 or less for taxes paid on food purchases.

He also worked for repeal of the state's investment tax credit. Pagan quickly became the odd man out on the seven-member Revenue and Taxation Committee, being outvoted 6-1 on several occasions.

Redistricting will force all legislators to defend their seats in 1992. With the primary a year away, business leaders and political operatives have plenty of questions about Pagan and Snyder, the two most outspoken members of a legislative body where freshmen traditionally keep their mouths shut, go along to get along and march to the beat of big business once they gain seniority.

Questions Galore

Are their constituents pleased with Pagan's and Snyder's controversial stands and willingness to go against the grain?

Will the state's major corporations, alienated by what they perceive as an anti-business bias, pump thousands of dollars into the campaigns of challengers?

Will the two rebels receive strong challenges from moderate to conservative Democrats?

Will what is left of the Arkansas Republican Party devote the time and resources necessary to make Pagan and Snyder fight for their lives?

Or will these two urban legislators be elected with little or no opposition, as is the case with the majority of Arkansas' senators?

Pagan and Snyder expect opposition. In fact, both have the ability to almost convince visitors they would welcome it.

"I know senators who have never faced serious opposition," Pagan says. "There's a way to avoid opposition in this state. You make it a point to never do anything that will make the special interest groups mad.

"To those special interests, I say come on. They tried last year to beat me and couldn't. I am willing to take my case to the voters. I'll lay my voting record in front of them and let them decide. You have to realize that there are no steel mills in west Little Rock. There are no poultry plants. There aren't any big trucking firms headquartered there. Still, the truckers and poultry people are free to put their case before my constituents."

Snyder is not as quick to invite competition. But he freely admits that one of the reasons he ran against Brandon last year was his strongly held belief that no incumbent should go without an opponent.

"I'm a Democrat, but I believe one of the things this state needs is a better developed two-party system," Snyder says. "We can accomplish some of the same goals, though, if we have heated primary contests. We need public debate. That doesn't mean incumbents necessarily should be ousted, but they should be forced to justify their votes."

Indeed, Snyder forced Brandon to defend his voting record from the day Snyder announced he was running -- March 31, 1990. The announcement was made on the state commuter parking lot between Interstate 630 and Brandon's huge Brandon House Furniture Co.

"We don't need any more new furniture for the Senate," Snyder said. "We need a new state senator."

For the next eight weeks, Snyder pointed out that Brandon had sold $163,045 worth of furniture to the Senate in 1985 and $101,036 worth of furniture to the House in 1989.

Brandon insisted he had submitted the lowest competitive bid in each instance. It didn't matter. The perception that he had somehow greased his pockets stuck with the voters.

"Just because something is legal doesn't make it right," Snyder said. "We don't need good love seats. We need good government."

Snyder also noted that Brandon had used tax-free bonds to build his Little Rock furniture store.

"Is he Senator Brandon or Senator Brandon House?" Snyder asked. It turned out to be one of the classic lines of campaign |90.

The Quiet Room

On May 11, 18 days before the primary, Snyder held a news conference in the Senate Quiet Room, which is located behind the Senate chambers and is off limits to the public during legislative sessions.

Snyder showed reporters the room's lavish desks, tables, chairs and lamps, comparing them to photos of a Little Rock School District teachers' lounge.

"Nothing contributes more to apathy and cynicism, nothing eats away more at the heart of a democracy than public officials who line their pockets with our tax dollars and ignore our real problems," he said.

Brandon, who had not had an opponent since winning his Senate seat in 1982, called Snyder "pretty naive," saying the doctor didn't "understand the system."

"He's down on the system, and he's using me as a symbol of the system," a frustrated Brandon said late in the campaign.

Brandon is no conservative, mind you. He usually opposed tax breaks for businesses. He was the sponsor of a major ethics law and of a law to provide free public education for disabled students. He supported opening corporate tax records to the public.

Brandon believes hundreds of his supporters crossed over last May to vote against Tommy Robinson in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Brandon lost by 521 votes.

In his primary campaign, Pagan painted Watkins as a man controlled by special interests. In the same stroke, he painted himself as the natural successor to retiring Sen. Ben Allen, who had railed against special interests in the Senate since 1967, finally throwing his hands up in disgust and deciding to retire.

"I think my voice would have been too strident," Allen said after announcing his decision. "It's probably a good thing that I'm not there and that we will have a fresh voice."

Allen endorsed Pagan. He also accused Watkins of preparing his own race at the same time he was doing polls for Allen. Just as the perception that Brandon had somehow lined his pockets at the taxpayers' expense stuck with voters, the impression that Watkins had stabbed Allen in the back also stuck.

Watkins sent out four-color brochures that topped everything produced in the governor's campaigns. He spent $88,000, including more than $32,000 of his own money. Pagan spent only $27,000 on the primary.

But the more Watkins spent, the more Pagan contended that Watkins was owned by special interests. Pagan sometimes was vague in defining those interests, but the tactic worked.

General Election

In the general election, Pagan mounted the same attacks against Fuller, an independently wealthy investment, real estate and advertising executive who claimed to speak for the business community.

Fuller pledged not to support tax increases. Pagan termed such a blanket pledge was unrealistic.

"I will say this about John," Fuller says now. "He did not lie to the people. He said he would vote to raise taxes, and he has."

One political consultant describes Pagan as someone who "genuinely sees himself as a young Ben Allen, a man who constantly ranted and raved, who constantly fought with the business interests in this state. I don't know. Maybe the district became used to that."

J.J. Vigneault, a Republican political consultant who ran the 1980 and 1984 Reagan campaigns in Arkansas along with the 1988 Bush campaign, doesn't believe it.

"This is an anti-tax district," says Vigneault, who lives in west Little Rock. "And the simple fact is that John Pagan votes for every new tax that comes down the pike. This is also a law-and-order district. Pagan consistently opposes what I consider to be law-and-order positions. This is a pro-business district. Pagan votes against business.

"Pagan is an anomaly. His being elected in west Little Rock is sort of like Bill Alexander being elected in John Paul Hammerschmidt's district. If Pagan has a credible opponent with money, he won't be re-elected. We've done a pretty good job of building a Republican base out here."

Vigneault points to the fact that west Little Rock sent Judy Petty to the House in 1980, making her the first Republican from the area to be elected to the Legislature since Reconstruction. Fuller was elected in 1984. Jim Keet was elected in 1988, giving up his seat two years later for a suicide congressional run against Democrat Ray Thornton.

"The problem in last year's general election was that the media had a vendetta against Ron Fuller," says Vigneault, who ran Robinson's unsuccessful gubernatorial primary campaign against Sheffield Nelson in the spring. "They didn't have Robinson to kick around anymore, so they went after Ron. It resulted in the election of a man who is totally out of sync with west Little Rock. Having Pagan represent us at the Capitol is as strange as having Ronald Reagan represent the Soviet Union at the United Nations."

Snyder's District

While Vigneault is confident Pagan can be beaten, he's not sure Snyder can be taken out. That's because Snyder represents the Heights, Hillcrest and Cammack Village, neighborhoods that historically have had liberal voting patterns. Yet he also represent areas such as Mabelvale and Alexander, known for blue-collar, conservative, anti-tax voting patterns.

"If Snyder were to be defeated, it most likely would have to be with a conservative Democrat who appeals to southwest Little Rock," Vigneault says. "That's unless redistricting changes his boundaries drastically."

Snyder, however, views himself as a citizen legislator who can appeal to "the little man," whether he be a liberal or a conservative.

"My biggest disappointment during the legislative session was the realization that moneyed interests exert far too much dominance," Snyder says. "I'm not sure whose fault that is. Do I fault business groups just because they're well-organized and effective? Or do I fault voters who won't stand up on their hind legs and say that enough is enough?

"I'm not so green that I believe the special interests should not be represented. The state would be floundering economically if not for the jobs the top industries provide. When we hurt the poultry industry, for example, we're affecting thousands of jobs. So I don't want to paint this as white hats vs. black hats. I'm calling for a balance."

Pagan steps further out onto the limb.

He says he became "extremely depressed" at times during the legislative session because "members were dominated by the special interest groups. There's a pervasive cynicism on the part of legislators. Take the poultry industry. Members say, 'Well, they're going to win anyway, so why should I alienate the chicken people by voting against them even though I might not agree?'

"Poultry always gets its way. The only question is whether it will get 98 percent of the vote or 100 percent of the vote. That's not good for the system. I believe in pluralism. I don't believe in two or three groups dominating the state's political process."

Pagan says the special interests are successful because they are "focused and do their jobs 365 days a year. The so-called public interest groups can't afford full-time spokesmen. They are poorly organized. They are poorly financed."

Pagan and Snyder were political activists prior to being elected to the Senate. Pagan was on the Pulaski County Quorum Court for four years, often advocating positions that outraged the court's staid majority.

In May 1988, Snyder mailed 796 letters to delegates attending the Democratic Party state convention, urging them not to vote for Rep. Tommy Robinson as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Snyder was upset by Robinson's behavior at an April 26 public hearing at Jacksonville concerning the rail-based MX missile. At that meeting, the congressman told a representative of the Arkansas Peace Center to take 86 letters of protest and "stick |em where the sun don't shine."

"We pay him to put up with and accept letters of protest from constituents," Snyder said at the time.

Robinson was selected as a delegate, but it did not deter Snyder's activism. Two weeks later, he filed a lawsuit asking that two sections of Act 382 of 1987 be declared unconstitutional. Those sections denied the public access to records about wholesale motor fuel taxes. The records show how much companies are allowed to keep as a tax credit on the state fuel taxes they collect from retailers. Wholesale distributors can claim a credit of up to 3 percent for "shrinkage" -- fuel lost through evaporation.

The records were open from 1967, when the state Freedom of Information Act was approved, until 1979, when the law was changed. The state Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that tax reports by corporations were to be open. The 1987 act that once again closed the records was passed over the objection of journalists.

Snyder lost his lawsuit, but the law was altered again this year to give the public more access to tax records.

"I've been interested in public policy all my life," Snyder says. "I had worked in several campaigns and sensed last year that the time was right for changes to occur. I felt voters would be receptive to a new face."

Snyder began law school in August 1985, just weeks after spending three months in the Sudan working in a refugee camp.

"So many things we classify as health problems are really political problems," he said following his return from east Africa. "That's true whether you're talking about famine and war in the Third World or about such problems as suicide or the high rate of teen-age pregnancies in Arkansas. I want to learn what the law tells us about such things."

After passing the bar exam, Snyder explained his decision not to practice law.

"I didn't think I'd be interested, and it turned out that was true," he said. "I still prefer to practice medicine."

Pagan, who has taught law since 1979, says there is only one thing that would cause him to leave his chosen profession.

"I guess all of us who teach law would like to be judges at some point," he says. "But I have no interest in being governor or a congressman."

Pagan and Snyder say they will seek re-election in 1992, although neither plans to make a career in the Legislature.

"I started on some things I would like to finish," Pagan says. "Arkansas is one of only a couple of states without a strong civil rights law. We need to change that for starters."

Whether Pagan and Snyder have the opportunity to continue as thorns in traditionalists' sides is, of course, up to the voters.

"I believe all 135 members of the Legislature should have to face tough opponents next year," Snyder says.

The two weren't afraid of alienating some powerful organizations this winter. It's late spring now, and they will express no regrets.

Their electoral moment of truth is a year away.

PHOTO : CONTROVERSIAL FRESHMAN: Sen. Vic Snyder makes a point during this year's legislative session. Snyder, a freshman, upset incumbent Doug Brandon last year. Even though he now is an incumbent himself, Snyder says he believes that no member of the Legislative should go without an opponent.

PHOTO : AT THE MICROPHONE: Sen John Pagan testifies during a recent legislative hearing. Pagan, a freshman, quickly became the odd man out on the seven-member Revenue and Taxation Commoittee, being outvoted 6-1 on several occasions. Some expect the state's major corporations, alienated by what they perceive as an anti-business bias, to put money into the campaign of a challenger.
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Title Annotation:Senators John Pagan's and Vic Snyder's controversial stance
Author:Nelson, Rex
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:May 20, 1991
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