Ex-Senator Who Helped Clinton’s Rise and Began Political Dynasty Dies at 89

Robert A. Reeder
Robert A. Reeder

One of the titans of Arkansas politics, David Pryor, died on Saturday at the age of 89.

Pryor, a Democrat, served several terms as a congressman, two terms as Arkansas governor, and two decades as a U.S. senator before retiring from elected office in 1995.

Along the way, Pryor began a political dynasty—his son, Mark, became a U.S. senator—and was a key figure behind the rise of Bill Clinton, Arkansas’ most famous modern son.

First running for office in 1966, Pryor represented a new generation of Southern Democrats. He was a liberal who opposed segregation and was an early advocate for environmentalism.

In 1974, Pryor won the Democratic primary for Arkansas governor by defeating former Gov. Orval Faubus, the pro-segregation Democrat who gained international notoriety for calling in the National Guard to block Black students from attending Central High School in Little Rock.

As governor, Pryor made his biggest mark by appointing significant numbers of Black and female officials to the state government, according to The New York Times.

But one of his lasting legacies was the elevation of Clinton, whom he tapped to serve as his Attorney General while governor. In 1978, when Pryor won a U.S. Senate seat after being term-limited from the governorship, Clinton won the election to succeed him in Little Rock. Ultimately, Pryor became one of Clinton's biggest supporters in his campaigns for president.

Political observers in Arkansas credit Pryor with helping it remain Democratic long after other Southern states flipped to the Republicans in the decades after the civil rights movement, according to the Washington Post.

But Arkansas is solidly Republican now. Pryor’s Senate seat is now held by archconservative Sen. Tom Cotton.

Mark Pryor, who lost to Cotton in 2014, confirmed the news of his father's death; no cause was given. He told the Times that President Joe Biden called on Friday to speak with the Pryor family.

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