Congressman Marion Berry at the 1986 Gillett Coon Supper with Gov. Bill Clinton and pastor Don Eubanks.
“There’s lots of opportunities for events like this,” Cotton said. “But this is one of the biggest and most famous in Arkansas. It’s a really good opportunity to kick the election year off and a good opportunity for retail politics.”
The supper isn’t technically a political event, according to Pastor Chad Phillip, president of the Gillett Farmers and Businessmen’s Club, which sponsors the event. It began as a fundraiser for the local high school football team and proceeds now go toward college scholarships for area students.
Marion Berry, a former Democratic congressman, shifted it into a statewide destination for politicos long before he was first elected to the House in 1996. And a second event emerged organically out of his living room.
Over the years, elected officials, lobbyists, candidates and businessmen from around the state would stop by Berry’s house across the street from the event for a pre-supper drink. Once a casual get-together, it evolved into a fundraiser for Berry when he ran for Congress and is now held in a much larger location to accommodate the growing interest.
With Berry no longer centrally involved, the event is being carried on by his son and others as a fundraiser to cover the room and board for an Arkansas State University student to intern on Capitol Hill. It’s held at Berry’s farm shop on the outskirts of town, where Democrats and Republicans rub elbows, listen to a live country-western band, eat duck and drink beer among tractors and other farm equipment.
“The political power brokers of the state on Saturday are going to be concentrated in this farm shop,” said Gabe Holmstrom, one of the organizers intent on carrying on the pre-supper tradition.
Pryor said most elected officials have a tale to tell about the Gillett Coon Supper. He launched his first state legislative campaign in 1990, a couple of weeks after meeting potential supporters at Berry’s house.
Gov. Mike Beebe’s career took off in Berry’s living room as well, when the incumbent he was challenging walked in to find most of the people at the party wearing Beebe campaign buttons. The incumbent opted not to run again shortly thereafter, as the story goes.
The most notorious tale of all has been told many times, including during Bumpers’ closing argument in Clinton’s impeachment trial.