It could have been 1973, maybe the year after; and I don’t recall whether it was a regular or special session of the General Assembly. Nor do I remember the issue, because of how the meeting ended.
Grover W. Turner — he was “Buddy” to colleagues, reporters, lobbyists, everyone — of Pine Bluff was Speaker. It was early in the evening, late in the session, the members were tired and most wanted to go home. But not all: still pending was a bill of some controversy, the last on the calendar, and of signal importance to a bloc of House members, of whom Rep. Julian Streett of Camden was the leader.
Citing a procedural obstacle to considering the legislation, someone moved for adjournment [begin ital] sine die [end ital]. The yelling began, back and forth between opposing camps; and some demands of the Speaker for recognition. After several moments of high-decibel confusion, Turner gaveled the session to its end.
Streett, livid, rushed to the well of the House like a batter beaned, charging the mound, as it were, and intercepted Turner as he descended from the dias. The dugouts emptied: teammates of each man joined the almost-melee, and while there were no real blows exchanged there was pushing and shoving and lapel-grabbing aplenty, enough to prompt the state trooper stationed at the rear of the chamber to trot down the aisle to help restore order.
Turner’s close friend and fellow Pine Bluffian, Rep. Boyce Alford, was still steaming minutes later when I caught up with him.
“I’ll knock his a— over his desk,” growled Alford, who was capable of it, scanning the Capitol corridor for Streett.
It was, in my time and to my recollection, the only really physical episode in the Arkansas legislature, and if bad blood lingered there was no blood spilled. Who knows what might have happened, though, had not some members in the previous session noticed that Rep. George Davis, a rather eccentric lawmaker from Sevier County, was packing heat? The trooper on duty was alerted, and he gently persuaded Davis to surrender the revolver for safekeeping.
So things have improved in these parts, civility more or less maintained, in the 180 years since a Turner predecessor knifed to death a political opponent in full view of the House. You’ve heard about it. What, you haven’t?
Okay, it happened at what is now the Old State House, in what was then and still is downtown Little Rock. The 1837 legislature, Arkansas’s first, was debating a bounty on wolf scalps. Things got out of hand. Forget the gavel; out came the knives. The Speaker’s found its mark. He was charged with murder but acquitted. Oh, Arkansas.
All of it — the Turner-Streett blowup, Davis’s handgun, the Bowie blades flashing — came to mind at news from across our southwestern border: legislators in Texas had themselves a little Lone Star dustup on the House floor the other day. Immigration, the issue. From the pictures I’ve seen it resembled the Arkansas House shoving contest in the 1970s: no slugging, just jostling and heated rhetoric. Quite overheated, if one member is to be believed.
“I’ll put a bullet in your head,” he quoted a rival delegate as threatening another representative.
Far from denying the comment, the legislator took to Twitter to tweet that he was the aggrieved, that he merely had been standing his ground against a threat to “get him.”
“I made it clear that if he attempted to…I would shoot him in self-defense,” the delegate declared.
That’s somewhat more extreme than knocking his a— over his desk.
That the battlefield might be the House floor is not a fantasy: Texas law, you see, grants individuals with concealed carry pistol permits free run of its Capitol. Just like Arkansas. And a fair number of Texas legislators are believed to arrive at Austin strapped. Just as it is presumed more than one Arkansas lawmaker is similarly equipped while doing the peoples’ business in Little Rock. (We can’t be certain because concealed carry information is no longer subject to the Freedom of Information Act.)
George Davis of Sevier County was simply ahead of his time. Boyce Alford of Jefferson County could have avoided bruised knuckles, or worse, had Julian Street of Ouachita County been quicker on the draw.
Arkansas isn’t Texas, not yet, though we seem at times to enjoy trying. For almost two centuries now we’ve not witnessed a debate descend to a duel. But political passions can spiral. And these are passionate times.