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David Pryor, former governor and senator of Arkansas, dies at age 89

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Former Arkansas Governor and U.S. Senator David Pryor, a Democrat who was one of the state’s most beloved political figures and remained active in public service in the state long after leaving office, has died. He was 89.

Pryor, who as a congressman went undercover to investigate nursing homes, died Saturday of natural causes in Little Rock surrounded by family, his son Mark Pryor said. David Pryor was a heart attack and stroke survivor who was also hospitalized in 2020 after testing positive for COVID-19.

“I think he was a great model for public service. He was a great role model for politicians, but just for everyone in how we should treat each other and how we can make Arkansas better,” said Mark Pryor, a former two-term Democratic U.S. senator.

David Pryor was considered one of the party’s giants in Arkansas, alongside former President Bill Clinton and the late U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers. He also served in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Arkansas Legislature, and has remained active in public life in recent years, including his appointment to the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees in 2009. He also attended the inauguration of Republican Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders in January 2023.

“David would be like a fish out of water if he was out of public service,” Bumpers, who served with Pryor in the Senate for 18 years, said in 2006. “It’s his whole life.”

In a statement Saturday, Clinton called Pryor “one of Arkansas’ greatest servant leaders and one of the greatest people I have ever known,” and said he “fought for progressive policies that helped us put our divisive past behind us and create a towards a better future. together.”

“David made politics personal – from his famous retail campaign to his ability to calmly and confidently explain tough votes to his voters,” Clinton said. “He was honest, compassionate and full of common sense. He truly loved the people he represented, and they loved him back.”

Warm thoughts and condolences came from both sides of the political aisle on Saturday.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a Republican, mourned Pryor’s death, saying his “charisma and moderate politics made him a force at the ballot box for decades.”

“While the Senator and I served in different political parties, I, like all Arkansans, greatly appreciated his diligent stewardship of Arkansas and our interests during his time in public life,” Sanders said in a post on X, formerly Twitter. “And we can all thank him for his role in burying the divisive racial politics that infected Arkansas government before his term.”

Sanders’ Republican predecessor as governor, Asa Hutchinson, called Pryor “the ultimate public servant.”

“He gave up other opportunities throughout his life to serve Arkansas and the public debate was elevated because of his service,” Hutchinson wrote on X.

Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas called Pryor “a true gentleman and a statesman.”

“His example served and will continue to serve as an inspiration to our fellow Arkansans,” Cotton said.

Pryor, founder and publisher of the weekly Ouachita Citizen, began his political career in 1960 with his election to the Arkansas House. He served there until 1966, when he was elected to Congress after winning a special election to the U.S. House.

During his time in the State House, Pryor gained a reputation as one of the “Young Turks” interested in reforming the state’s political system. Pryor said years later that the reforms he wanted did not come as quickly as he had dreamed in his younger years.

“I think I was a young reformer at that time,” Pryor said in 2006. “I wanted to change the world. I wanted it to change overnight, but it didn’t.”

He experienced his first – and only – political defeat in 1972, when he challenged U.S. Senator John McClellan’s bid for a sixth term in the Democratic primary. Pryor managed to force a runoff with McClellan, but he lost by about 18,000 votes. It was a defeat that hurt Pryor decades later.

“After the McClellan race, I left politics, or politics abandoned me,” he wrote in his 2008 autobiography, “A Pryor Commitment.” “I didn’t care who was governor or president. For months I avoided reading the newspaper. I just wanted to be left alone and, like General MacArthur, to disappear quietly.”

Pryor was elected governor in 1974, replacing Bumpers. He served for four years before being elected to the U.S. Senate, where Pryor won passage of a Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in 1988. He called the legislation — which expanded citizens’ rights in dealing with the IRS — the “cornerstone” of his congressional career.

“I did not sponsor this bill to help Donald Trump or Lee Iacocca,” Pryor, chairman of the Treasury Subcommittee on Internal Revenue Oversight, said at the time. “This is a bill that protects the average taxpayer.”

He also focused on helping the elderly and went undercover while serving in the U.S. House from 1966 to 1973 to investigate nursing homes. He said they often found as many as 15 beds in one room.

“Even now I remember clearly the loneliness, neglect, despair, fear and boredom – especially boredom – of those cold and sterile houses,” he wrote. “Essentially human warehouses for old people.”

Pryor decided not to seek re-election in 1996, and in early 1997 he retired from office at the end of his term.

But he remained active in the public eye and in politics. He served for two years as the inaugural dean of the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service, located next to the former president’s library in downtown Little Rock. He also served as temporary chairman of the state Democratic Party in 2008, after the chairman was fatally shot in his office.

On the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees, Pryor was an outspoken opponent of a $160 million plan to expand Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in 2016 and criticized the “nuclear arms race” among college football programs.

Pryor and his wife Barbara had three children.