Lawmaker Looks Back on Term in Office
Piggott businessman Mike Patterson completed his third and final term in the Arkansas Legislature this past year. Due to term limitations, Patterson, a former Piggott alderman and Chamber of Commerce president, was unable to run for re-election in 2012.
For the past six years he served as representative for the 79th House District, which includes all of Clay County and the Marmaduke area of Greene County. Last year voters chose Joe Jett of Success as his replacement.
A longtime member and supporter of the Democratic Party in Arkansas, Patterson was no stranger to the capital city and the political arena when he was first elected to the job in 2006. At the side of his father Dallas, he had become active in politics at an early age. As a strong supporter of the Democratic Party during its heyday in the state, he easily developed first-name relations with stalwarts such as Bumpers, Pryor and Clinton. But, as a State Representative, he approached the situation with a different frame of mind.
"When you're first elected you go to Little Rock and you try to meet as many people, and learn as much as you can to try to do what you can for the people of your district," he explained. "State government is basically a business with a 21 to 23-billion dollar budget and it takes a lot of people to run a business that big. I always tried to remember that I was sent to Little Rock to represent the 28,000 people in my district back home and to do everything I could for them."
During his first term in office, Patterson was able to make a difference, and either sponsored or co-sponsored several pieces of legislation. One, that became a pet project of his, also gained him a measure of national feedback.
"I introduced legislation that has to do with people serving life sentences in prison without the chance of parole," he explained. "Under the old law they were still entitled to a parole hearing every few years, forcing the families to have to relive the deaths of their loved ones and seek letters to keep them in prison. I asked that it be extended to 10 years between hearings, but could only get enough support to raise it to six years."
Patterson added that, when Gov. Mike Beebe signed the legislation, he noted that the original extension had been one he had introduced during his time as a State Senator, and applauded the lawmaker for "making a good law better."
"I was able to come back later and get it extended again, and now there is a required eight year wait between hearings for those who are serving those type sentences," he added. "Since then I've gotten letters from people in Arkansas thanking me, but I've also gotten letters from all over the United States from people that were being forced to come back here for those hearings."
Patterson was also instrumental in obtaining economic development funding for the first wind turbine component factory in Arkansas. "Now, if we're not the world leader in the manufacture of wind turbines, we're very near the top," he added.
Patterson also credits Beebe, whom he refers to as "one of the best governors in the nation," with the spirit of cooperation within the legislature. "He's been down there a lot of years, and he knows what's going on -- and he's got an excellent staff," he added. "Beebe has an open door policy, and it's always good to know that you can go up there and talk things over with him if needed. He's a good, decent down-to-earth man."
Patterson's term in the legislature was also a pivotal time in American politics, with the rise of the Tea Party movement and a shift in power in many statehouses. "I've always been a Democrat myself, but once I was elected I went to Little Rock to represent the Democrats, Republicans, Independents --- people that voted for me and people that didn't vote for me. That's what I went down there for, to represent their interests."
"I talked with a lot of the Tea Party folks, and they just felt they should be doing things different," he noted. "I did notice that when I ran for my second term a lot of Tea Party candidates were elected, and a lot of them were sent back home in the next election. I think a lot of them came down there and realized that you are just one vote, and you can't get anything done alone. It takes 51 votes to pass a bill and it takes that many votes to kill a bill. I also think there were some who felt we should be addressing issues that should be handled in Washington and not in Arkansas, but sometimes you don't realize that until you get down there," he said.
"I learned early on that you don't have to pass a lot of legislation to do a good job if you can keep the bad things from passing for the people of your district and the state of Arkansas," he added.
In looking ahead Patterson sees good things coming from the next General Assembly. "I think it is going to be a good one, if the Democrats had retained power Darrin Williams was going to be Speaker of the House, but with the Republicans taking power it looked like Terry Rice would be elected. But, at the last minute Rep. Davy Carter ran and beat Rice -- and I think that's the best thing for the state," he explained. "I worked with Carter on the Tax and Revenue Committee and I know that he doesn't vote on a bill because it's backed with a Democrat or Republican -- he votes on a bill based on whether it's good for the state and not because it's being backed by a Democrat or Republican."
Patterson also noted that Carter has been bipartisan in choosing his key staff, and in making committee assignments, which he sees as a positive for the entire state. "I think he'll do a good job with working with both sides and that should mean a good session," he added.
"Joe Jett will do a good job for Clay County," Patterson said of his successor. "He's been chairman of the Aeronautics Commission and has been making trips to Little Rock for the past year and a half to sit in on committee meetings and such and is on top of what's going on. I know he'll do a good job."
"I didn't go down there to try to sponsor a lot of bills, although I've probably sponsored or co-sponsored nearly 200 pieces of legislation," he added. "I am especially proud of the bills we've gotten passed helping senior citizens, addressing health care issues and providing tax incentives to try to attract new jobs or just keep the ones we have."
Another pet project of his time in office might seem inconsequential to many, but has a great impact on the region. "We worked for five years to get the bridges replaced on Highway 135 between Paragould and the Corning Y and finally got that done," he explained. "There had been a lot of wrecks and people had been killed, we were finally able to get those bridges replaced and it makes it safer for everyone. I got a lot of help from the governor on that project."
Patterson notes that many other highway projects have been completed in the region during his time in office, and reports that another of his pet projects is finally seeing the light of day. "We've worked hard to make sure we get our fair share of work, and there have been dozens of highway projects completed. The improvements to Highway 49 between Rector and Marmaduke are great. And, the next time bids are let for projects one of them will be to add shoulders to Highway 90 from Rector to Boydsville. This has been something I've worked on for years and we're finally getting it done. (Former State Rep.) Richard Simmons was able to get the bridges widened years ago, now we'll get new shoulders -- it's going to make a lot of difference." Patterson also noted that recent meetings with the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department have resulted in plans to complete the widening of U.S. 49 from Paragould to Marmaduke.
As a true public servant, the most rewarding times in office were those when Patterson felt he was of service to the communities he represented. "I got a call one day from (Piggott) Mayor Morris saying the state had informed them that they were going to close the senior center. In fact, they had announced that they were closing all but one of the centers in the county," he explained. "I went down and talked it over with the lady in charge, and her boss and a few other folks called her boss and we were able to keep the Piggott and Rector centers open," he added. "After all, if you can't take care of your senior citizens what can you do?"
But, arguably Patterson's finest hour came as a result of the ice storm of 2009. "I was in Little Rock because we were in session when my wife called and told me what was going on," he remembered. "I was able to work down there to try to get as much help as I could for Clay County and Northeast Arkansas."
As the storm crippled the region Patterson remained in the capital city working behind the scenes to the benefit of his constituents. "In all my three terms I missed one day, and that was the day the governor called and asked me if I would go with him as he flew across the state and surveyed the damage," he remembered. "We flew over much of the state and made several stops. From Mountain Home we were scheduled to fly to Piggott where all the local mayors and officials were waiting because the whole area was in trouble. But, on the way we had to stop at Jonesboro to refuel."
During that stop the National Guard pilots received word that the weather was expected to deteriorate and the two helicopters were ordered back to Little Rock.
"I was sitting next to the governor's assistant, and she said they wanted us to fly back to Little Rock. We were supposed to be there around 1:30 and it was already 3:30 so I knew people were going to be getting mad waiting around for us to talk to them," he related. "I told this aide to tell the governor that we have to go to Piggott, even if it's just for five minutes -- these people are upset, they need help and they need somebody to gripe to and you need to be there."
Patterson noted that, although the National Guard insisted the Blackhawks return to Little Rock, the governor overrode the decision and the contingent landed at the local airport. "We went ahead and landed at Piggott, and the governor listened to everybody's concerns and said he would do everything he could, which he did."
Patterson also pointed to the ice storm as a time when he was able to forge strong relationships with those who could be of future benefit to the region. "I got to know Gen. Wofford of the National Guard well, and Mr. Phillips with the Arkansas State Police. It's good to know people like that when folks in our area need something," he said.
In looking back on his terms in the legislature, Patterson has plenty to be proud of, and his work will have long-term benefits both locally and statewide. "I was glad we were able to secure long-term funding for the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum so they don't have to go back every other year to the legislature," he observed. "We also did a lot of good work in committee toward helping spread telemedicine services to the state, and promoting technology in our hospitals and other medical facilities."
Now that his term in office is complete Patterson has returned to his partnership with wife Pat in Piggott Realty. "It was an interesting job, and I don't think anyone can say that I didn't go down there and represent everyone in my district fairly -- and that's just what I set out to do," he concluded.