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.
“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.
After a foot of snow had fallen one January in the late 1980s, Clinton told Bumpers a county judge had a local airport runway plowed so they could land a plane and attend the dinner. But all the snow had been pushed to the front of the runway, and the plane clipped the top of the icy mound before crash landing and swerving off the pavement.
“Boy, I bet we never lose another vote in Gillett,” Clinton said as they exited the plane and ran across the icy field, as Bumpers once told it.
One year when Bumpers was up for re-election, he caught the flu and wasn’t going to make it to the supper. But David Pryor called him, told him Gillett voters would remember it on Election Day and then picked him up to drive him there. A local TV station planned to run a clip of Bumpers eating raccoon on the evening news, but, feeling sicker as he eyed the feast, Bumpers claimed to be too full for even one more bite.
For the weaker stomachs this year, there will be ribs and brisket served as well.
“Everybody has a different opinion on whether they like it,” Crawford said of raccoon meat. “It doesn’t taste like chicken.”