Congressman Marion Berry at the 1986 Gillett Coon Supper with Gov. Bill Clinton and pastor Don Eubanks.
A small, agricultural town in southeast Arkansas will morph into the center of the state’s political universe this weekend, as elected officials, candidates and political insiders caravan in for an event that marks the start of a lively election year.
Hundreds of pounds of raccoon meat will be served Saturday night inside a local school gymnasium at the 71st annual Gillett Coon Supper. The more appealing draw, however, is Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor and Republican Rep. Tom Cotton.
They’re already spending big bucks on the airwaves, but the Senate race opponents won’t skip the chance to meet with hundreds of voters at this storied gathering in the heart of farm country. They will speak at the same event for just the second time since the Senate race began last summer.
“It’s kind of the unofficial kickoff of campaign season,” said GOP Rep. Rick Crawford, whose 1st District includes Gillett.
“They literally serve raccoon. And you’re supposed to eat some. That’s the tradition,” Crawford added. “They serve other things too, but believe me, every table has plates and plates of it.”
The gathering regularly sells at least 600 tickets — a number similar to the size of the town’s population — and is expected to draw even more media attention than usual this year, as Arkansas hosts potentially competitive Senate, House and gubernatorial contests. Also scheduled to attend are Democrat Mike Ross and Republican Asa Hutchinson, two former congressmen now running for governor.
At the dinner, members of the congressional delegation and the top elected officials in the state are granted about five minutes each to speak. The event was once regularly attended by Gov. Bill Clinton and longtime Democratic Sens. Dale Bumpers and David Pryor, the current senator’s father.
In an interview, Mark Pryor, who is running for a third term, estimated that he attended his first Gillett Coon Supper at the age of 12, while his father was serving as governor in the mid-1970s. He’ll go this time as the top target of national Republicans, defending the last Democratic seat in the state’s congressional delegation.
“This is an example of how Arkansas politics is very local in nature,” Pryor said. “If you go outside of Arkansas, people may think of the coon supper as a total curiosity. But in the state, it’s one of those things that’s almost a cardinal rule: You go to the coon supper.”
Cotton won his first campaign for elected office in 2012, and will be attending the supper for the first time. In an interview, the freshman congressman said he sees it as an excellent chance to meet voters from around the state, especially from east Arkansas.