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Tough-talking Tyson.

Tough-Talking Tyson

At election time two years ago, some of the state's wealthiest people paid more than $20,000 for a last-minute television blitz they hoped would shoot down the proposed Fair Tax Amendment.

Although some of his cronies in the Arkansas Poultry Federation probably helped pay for the ads, chicken king Don Tyson supported the proposal and, in an act of noblesse oblige, tried to head off their effort.

"He helped us with immediate money," recalls Betsey Wright, former chief of staff to Gov. Bill Clinton and now chair of the state's Democratic Party. "I think he pulled together $10,000 to $20,000 overnight and allowed us to get on TV and counter it."

For all his good intentions, however, Tyson's attempt to save the Fair Tax Amendment died at the polls, but it afforded a fascinating look at a rather enigmatic man and his politics.

Often At Odds With Poultry


Tyson's support of Bill Clinton, along with his outspokenness on education reform and tax programs, often have put him at odds with associates in the Arkansas Poultry Federation.

Although the federation is Arkansas' most powerful special interest group and represents the needs of wealthy, conservative poultry producers, Tyson often is viewed as being a free agent.

"Absolutely," says Wright, who is still steamed about the demise of the Fair Tax Amendment. "That's my sense. I'm not an insider in the (poultry federation) group, but Tyson does hang out there by himself. I do think he's a renegade."

Renegade or not, Tyson definitely is one of the wealthiest men in America and shows up each year in Forbes magazine's famous 400. He and his wife Barbara each have a net worth of approximately $500 million.

Tyson's associates say that he's willing to put his money where his mouth is, and that he's been as bold and forceful recently in politics as he is in business. His pronouncements often come across as though he's speaking for all of Arkansas' poultry producers when, in fact, he's not.

Personally, Tyson is something of a contradiction, too. For a downhome kind of guy, (he wears a uniform shirt with his name stitched over the pocket instead of a suit and wants employees to call him Don), Tyson has an uptown salary. Last year, he got a $1 million pay raise and was making a total salary of $3.56 million, according to the proxy statement issued by the company.

Supporting Liberal Causes,

Conservative Base

Unlike most of his associates in the poultry business, Tyson is a fairly staunch Democrat and recently has supported what appear to be liberal tax and education reforms. Ironically, he makes his money off the labor of people who live and work for him in a part of the state known to be a Republican stronghold.

Tyson also lent some muscle to the ethics bill, and his interest in issues, rather than candidates, seems to be growing. He was instrumental in founding both the Arkansas Business Council (better known as the Good Suit Club) and its education arm, A+ Arkansas.

"Until the last three or four years," says one political insider who knows him well, "I don't know that Tyson had any strong concerns about anything except the poultry business."

Others wonder if Tyson's sudden outspokenness is part of a "divide and conquer" strategy by the APF, which represents all of the major poultry interests in the state. The federation, for example, can use its lobbying influence to represent conservative business interests while Tyson fronts for liberal, progressive causes.

"Don Tyson is such a powerful force that I don't think the other kingpins in poultry processing are going to cross him anyway," observes Jim Lingle of Rogers, a lawyer and candidate for the District 1 senate seat held by Joe Yates of Bentonville.

Lingle recently has criticized Yates, director of industry relations for the poultry federation, for conflict of interest. "It may be a good idea for (the poultry federation) to be divided on some issues," Lingle says. "They're going to win either way."

Although no one would characterize Tyson as a "yellow-dog Democrat," his loyalty to the party and struggling, young candidates is legendary.

"I wouldn't label him," says Paul Berry, a lobbyist for Union National Bank and a longtime friend of Tyson. "Don Tyson is a man who has loyal personal relationships not only in business but also in the political arena."

Getting Started 20 Years Ago

According to Berry, Tyson helped his friend, David Pryor, get started in politics almost 20 years ago in a bid to unseat Sen. John L. McClellan. At the time, Berry was working for McClellan.

"It would have been much easier, from a business standpoint, for Don to stay with McClellan," Berry recalls. "I tried very hard to get Don to support him."

Around the same time, Tyson also was supporting another political unknown - Sen. Dale Bumpers. Tyson, the story goes, handed Bumpers his first thousand-dollar check.

"It looked like the Chase-Manhattan Bank to me then," Bumpers recalls. At the time, Tyson Foods was grossing only chicken feed - $80 million annually - compared to the $500 to $600 million Tyson now grosses per quarter.

Although Tyson supported J. William Fulbright when Bumpers ran against him later for the U.S. Senate, Bumpers says there were no hard feelings.

"He and Senator Fulbright had been friends for a long time," Bumpers explains. "One of Don's great characteristics is that he doesn't burn his bridges behind him. It's always a fair fight and when it's over, it's over. He doesn't make any enemies."

Tyson's lawyer, Jim Blair of Fayetteville, also is a close, personal friend of Gov. Bill Clinton, who has enjoyed both vocal and financial support from Tyson.

Asked about the incongruity of Tyson's loyalty to the Democrats in a part of the state known to be a Republican stronghold, Blair explains it as a matter of "social conscience."

"It's hard for rich people to be Democrats," Blair notes. "In some ways, you've got to vote against your own interests to do it."

Bucking the Trend

Marvin Schwartz, director of A+ Arkansas and author of a new book entitled Tyson: From Farm to Market, believes that Tyson's political style is similar to the way he conducts business, and that both are reflections of Tyson's personality.

"He usually supports his actions with fairly aggressive activity," Schwartz notes. Tyson's generous support of politicians who also are friends, Schwartz says, is characteristic of Tyson.

According to Schwartz, Tyson Foods has thrived because of Tyson's tendency to buck the trend, make snap decisions and move quickly. "In politics, when he's behind you, the public may not know it, but his support is considerable."

Obviously, the same enthusiasm extends to Tyson's capacity for stating his political views even when they conflict with those of the poultry federation. However, Tyson PR man Bob Justice says that Tyson has friends in both political parties.

A telling example came in 1984. That year, Tyson, Blair and other Tyson executives showed up on a list of those who had contributed to Republican John Paul Hammerschmidt's reelection bid for the House. At the time, Blair was a Democratic national committeeman.

"Don has a great deal of respect for Mr. Hammerschmidt," Justice explains, "and supports him as strongly as he does the Democrats.

"He has had his moments of disagreement about certain candidates with the poultry federation, too," Justice says, "But he still supports the federation 100 percent. He may not always agree, but he'd go along with their intent."

No Problems With APF

If there is any problem between Tyson and the poultry federation, executive director Don Allen says he is unaware of it nor does he consider Tyson to be a renegade.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," Allen claims. "In my 14 years, he's never taken an opposing view on any issue. We've got members who are yellow-dog Democrats, dyed-in-the-wool Republicans and wide-open independents."

In the forthcoming election, the APF supports both Amendments 1 and 2 and the College Bond initiative but has taken no position on Act 945. The federation doesn't endorse candidates for the state's constitutional offices.

State Rep. David Matthews of Lowell in Benton County is vacating his House seat after eight years and says that, during his career, Tyson was an exemplary corporate citizen. While critical of the poultry federation, Matthews says that he admires Tyson's willingness to speak his own mind on issues that divide him from his colleagues.

"He's going to tell the truth about what's wrong with the state," Matthews claims. "On an issue like education, he says |If you've got to raise my taxes or my company's taxes, then let's do it.'"

Matthews believes that the clout of special interest groups like the poultry federation traditionally have doomed a number of progressive referendums in areas like tax reform and ethics.

"What happens is that various big groups band together and they're as tough as they can be," Matthews notes. "It's a whole lot easier to be against things than for things."

While Tyson continues to voice his own concerns, however, and the poultry federation pursues its own agenda, Matthews says that politics still get down to what he called the Golden Rule:

"Them that's got the gold," he explains, "make the rule."

Out Of The

Hen House

Although Don Tyson is known for his generous, long-standing support of Democratic candidates, Tyson himself stayed out of the political spotlight until:

* In 1987 he and other wealthy businessmen formed the Arkansas Business Council, i.e. the "Good Suit Club";

* Tyson later chaired the ABC's education committee and was instrumental in forming A+ Arkansas, a group dedicated to advancing education initiatives;

* In the summer of 1987, political friends Sen. David Pryor and Rep. Beryl Anthony took Tyson's side in Washington during the "chicken wars" - a battle over changing a special tax provision that would benefit Tyson Foods and other poultry giants;

* Late in 1988, Sen. Dale Bumpers spoke against proposed legislation to curtail a "family farm" tax break that had enabled Tyson and other major poultry producers to defer paying most of their federal income taxes in recent years. Bumpers said he would fight to protect the provision.

PHOTO : ARKANSAS' CHICKEN KING: Head of the state's largest poultry operation with $2.5 billion in 1989 revenues, when Tyson talks, people listen. He hasn't been shy lately about making his views known.

PHOTO : LISTENING TO TYSON: Tyson Foods Chairman Don Tyson likes employees to call him by his first name even though he is one of the richest men in the world with a net worth of approximately $500 million.
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Title Annotation:includes related article; Arkansas' chicken king Don Tyson
Author:Lorenzen, Rod
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Oct 22, 1990
Previous Article:Gambling on the future: business, political elite look at Arkansas' future.
Next Article:Insightful occupation.

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