Bill Gwatney Remembered as Big Name in Arkansas Democratic Politics

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Bill Gwatney, who served stints as an Arkansas state senator, chairman of the state's Democratic Party and as a party superdelegate, died Wednesday after a gunman burst into his office at the state party headquarters and shot him several times. He was 48.

Gwatney was fatally shot by Timothy Dale Johnson, 50, of Searcy, police said. Police did not know of a motive, and they said there was no indication that Johnson and Gwatney were acquainted.

The shooting occurred only two blocks from the state Capitol, where Gwatney served in the state Senate from 1993-2002.

The owner of three Little Rock-area car dealerships, Gwatney had been planning to travel to the Democratic National Convention later this month as a superdelegate. He had backed Hillary Rodham Clinton, but endorsed Barack Obama after she dropped out of the race.

Clinton and her husband, former President and former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, issued a statement saying Gwatney was "not only a strong chairman of Arkansas' Democratic Party, but ... also a cherished friend and confidante."

The seriousness Gwatney brought to his political manuevering was absent as he advertised his three General Motors car dealerships. He hoisted a giant inflatable dragon atop a showroom in Jacksonville and dubbed it "Gwatzilla," and there was no doubt, in his mind, where buyers could make a good deal.

Gwatney became head of the state party in 2007, just after Mike Huckabee left office after 10 1/2 years as a popular Republican governor.

Gwatney had considered running against Huckabee in 2002, but later backed away from the idea, saying he liked "being a state senator, where I have a forum to criticize him." He also was mentioned as a possible U.S. Senate candidate.

"When you're down there at the Capitol every day and you're frustrated, sure, you think about it," Gwatney said at the time. "Now, I'm home with my wife and kids, and my frustration level isn't pegging out at 110 percent."

Although he didn't enter the 2002 race, he was still involved — playing Huckabee while helping Democratic nominee Jimmie Lou Fisher practice for debates.

"He did real well. He was able to put a different hat on," Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola said.

After Gwatney's death, Huckabee called the shooting a "senseless act of depraved violence that touches all of us."

"He was a very effective leader for his party and an event like this certainly makes all politics seem small and insignificant," Huckabee said.

Gwatney served as finance chairman for Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe's successful 2006 run and oversaw the party's sweep of all the state's top elected positions, drawing credit for bringing the party together and giving it energy not seen since Bill Clinton left the governor's mansion for the White House in 1992.

Gwatney and Beebe served together in the Senate and were close friends. Beebe visited with Gwatney's family at the hospital after the shooting.

"Arkansas has lost a great son, and I have lost a great friend," Beebe said. "There is deep pain in Arkansas tonight because of the sheer number of people who knew, respected and loved Bill Gwatney. Along with thousands of other Arkansans, Ginger and I are trying to come to terms with such a shocking and senseless attack."

As a legislator he sponsored a successful bill that required elected officials to report more specifically on the gifts they receive. He also once backed a bill that would have given legislators a raise, something he explained to voters by saying the money came to about 75 cents a day.

In recent weeks, Gwatney successfully urged the party to refuse to certify former Rep. Dwayne Dobbins as a candidate for a state House. Dobbins resigned his North Little Rock seat three years ago to settle a felony sexual assault and made a surprise filing to run again this year for the position.

Gwatney was born Aug. 26, 1959. His father, Harold Gwatney, was a lifelong Democrat who once served as the adjutant general of the Arkansas National Guard.

Gwatney is survived by his wife Rebecca; two daughters from a prior marriage, Christian and Chase; and two stepchildren, Zachary and Emily.