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Bill Gwatney was an Arkansas business and political leader who served in the Arkansas Senate for a decade and was later appointed chair of the state Democratic Party. His 2008 murder at Democratic Party headquarters made national and international headlines.
William Alan Gwatney was born on August 26, 1959, to Harold and Syble Gwatney in Jacksonville (Pulaski County), where his father owned the city’s first Chevrolet dealership. After graduating from Jacksonville High School in 1977, he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County).
Following graduation, he joined the family business of operating three car dealerships in Pulaski County, and he ultimately served as CEO of Gwatney Chevrolet in Jacksonville. He also served as executive vice president with the First National Bank in Jacksonville, which had at one time been owned by his family, and was a member of the board of the First Arkansas Bank and Trust.
In addition to his business interests, he served on numerous local boards and commissions. He was president of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce and was a Rotary International Paul Harris Fellow. He also served on the board of Pathfinders and the North Metro Medical Center in Jacksonville.
In 1992, at the age of thirty-two, Gwatney won election to the Arkansas Senate, where he served from 1993 until 2003 before term limits brought an end to his Senate career. While in the state Senate, he served as chair of the Arkansas Legislative Council Review Committee as well as the Public Retirement/Public Safety Subcommittee. He also served as vice chair of an array of committees, including the Arkansas Legislative Council, the Senate Revenue and Tax Committee, the Joint Budget Committee, and the Senate’s Children and Youth Committee. Among his legislative accomplishments was a bill that required additional details in the disclosure of gifts that legislators received. Gwatney also backed a bill calling for a pay raise for legislators. While heading a panel that sought to save the Arkansas State Police health program, he burnished his reputation for candor, if not his popularity, by telling the group’s trustees that their long-time practice of no premiums and low co-pays was unrealistic. Probably his best-known piece of legislation was the law that required insurance companies to pay the same fees to out-of-network doctors who agreed to the same terms as those in the network.
As his final term neared its end, in 2002, Gwatney considered challenging Governor Mike Huckabee, who was seeking reelection, but decided against it. He stayed involved in the Democratic Party, serving in 2006 as the finance chair for former Senate colleague Mike Beebe’s successful gubernatorial run. Following that election, Beebe appointed him chair of the state Democratic Party.
Gwatney’s marriage to his first wife, Kathy, ended after twenty-five years. The couple had two daughters. He married his second wife, Rebecca, in 2007.
Gwatney was shot to death at the state Democratic Party headquarters in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on August 13, 2008. According to police, Gwatney and his assailant, Timothy Dale Johnson, had never met, and police have never been able to determine a motive for the act. At the time of his death, Gwatney was preparing to travel to the Democratic Party’s National Convention, where he was slated to serve as a super delegate. That day, Johnson entered the party headquarters and asked to speak to Gwatney; he then shot Gwatney and fled the building, leading police on a long car chase before police fatally shot him during a confrontation.
Former president Bill Clinton gave a eulogy at Gwatney’s funeral. Gwatney is buried in Rest Hills Memorial Park in North Little Rock (Pulaski County).
For additional information:
Blomley, Seth. “A Year Later, Gwatney’s Death Still Tinges Family’s Days.” Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 13, 2009. Online at http://www.nwaonline.com/news/2009/aug/13/year-after-slaying-gwatneys-death-still-t-20090813/?extras (accessed December 7, 2017).
Dewans, Shaila, and Steve Barnes. “Gunman Kills Democratic Official in Arkansas.” New York Times, August 13, 2008. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/14/us/14arkansas.html (accessed December 7, 2017).
Sanders, Jacob Q. “Democrats’ Gwatney Slain.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 14, 2008, pp. 1A, 4A.
Sanders, Jacob Q., and Amy Upshaw. “Killer’s Home Yields 14 Guns, No Motive.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 15, 2008, pp. 1A, 9A.
“William Alan ‘Bill’ Gwatney.” Find-a-Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=28985422 (accessed December 7, 2017).
William H. Pruden III
Last Updated 12/7/2017
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