Success is not always a straight line. Even the most successful lives are fraught with many reverses and unexpected shifts. Carl Bailey was a man who rose from a humble background to becoming one of the most powerful men in Arkansas.
Carl Edward Bailey was born in rural Missouri in 1894. His father took a series of jobs from salesman to logger to support the family, often moving from place to place before settling in Campbell, just a few miles from the Arkansas state line.
After Bailey’s high school graduation in 1912, he briefly took a job as a school teacher. He worked in a factory and on a railroad. He returned to Campbell and operated a diner for a time. Much of his early career mirrored his father’s – moving from place to place, working a variety of jobs, and scrambling to make ends meet. Bailey was not afraid to try something new and not intimidated by the obstacles to get to the next step in his life.
In 1915, he began attending college, but he ran out of money and had to drop out. By 1917, he and his young family found themselves in Trumann in Northeast Arkansas as an accountant for a local lumber company. Shortly afterward, he took an accounting job in nearby Augusta. While in Augusta, he decided that he wanted to try law as a profession. Without a college education, he began studying law intently, and passed the bar exam to become a lawyer by 1922.
He soon moved to Little Rock and was drawn into politics, becoming Deputy Prosecuting Attorney in 1927 for the Sixth Judicial District. He was elected Prosecuting Attorney in 1930. As the Great Depression deepened in Arkansas, Bailey took on several high-profile fraud cases, clashing with businessmen with powerful political allies. By 1934, Bailey was attorney general.
Gov. Marion Futrell announced he would not be running for re-election in 1936, leaving an open field that Bailey quickly jumped into. In the midst of the campaign, an extradition fight exploded over gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano who had sought refuge in Hot Springs, then known for attracting organized crime figures.
New York officials demanded that Luciano be extradited for trial on an array of charges stemming from his control of the mafia. Luciano was arrested but was quickly released on bail instead of being held for an extradition hearing. Unable to trust officials in Hot Springs and fearful that Luciano would escape again, Bailey quickly ordered twenty state troopers down to the resort city to bring Luciano to the county jail in Little Rock.
Bailey was offered $50,000 (or $885,000 in 2017 dollars) to look the other way against the extradition. Bailey said no. For whatever else he was, he would not be bought.
Luciano was extradited back to New York in a frenzied hearing before the press and curious onlookers in the governor’s conference room at the Capitol. He was later sentenced to 50 years in prison and eventually deported.
Bailey won the Democratic Primary by a margin of just over 4,000 votes over Secretary of State Ed McDonald, taking just 32.7%. Bailey cruised to an easy victory in the general election that fall, capturing 85% of the vote over the Republican and Socialist candidates.
Upon his inauguration in January 1937, he found a state still reeling from the lingering effects of the Great Depression and heavy debts. He also found himself in the midst of massive political battles over the state’s default on highway bonds and civil service reforms. Bailey created a system of merit exams for applicants to prove they had the skills needed for hire or for promotion. He also created the Department of Public Welfare to help the neediest in the state, a reform that made the state eligible for federal funding.
In 1940, Bailey attempted to run for a third term. Internal Revenue Collector Homer Adkins became his most outspoken critic over Bailey’s attempts to reform the state’s politics and patronage system, and Bailey’s own fumbles in the legislature did not help. Adkins built a wide lead against Bailey and won the nomination by 33,000 votes, 56.7% to 43.3%.
After his defeat, Bailey’s political career was largely at an end. He stayed in Little Rock, switching his interests from law to starting a business selling farm equipment. One of his last political acts was an act of revenge against his old adversary Homer Adkins. In the 1944 Democratic race for U. S. Senate, he endorsed and actively campaigned for J. William Fulbright, Adkins’s opponent. Fulbright went on to win the race.
Bailey lived the remainder of a quiet life, dying in 1948. Though his successes were checkered with personal losses, he went far in his short 54 years.