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Robert Marion Berry represented Arkansas’s First Congressional District as a Democrat for seven terms. First elected to the 105th Congress, he served from January 1997 until January 2011.
Marion Berry was born in Stuttgart (Arkansas County) on August 27, 1942. The son of a rice farmer and his wife, he had two brothers. He was educated in local schools before graduating from DeWitt High School in DeWitt (Arkansas County). Berry went on to the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), where he earned a BS in pharmacy in 1965. He settled in Gillett (Arkansas County) and became a licensed pharmacist and a farmer who grew rice and soybeans. He soon became involved in local politics, winning a seat on the city council, where he served from 1976 to 1980.
Berry was on the Arkansas Soil and Water Conservation Commission from 1986 to 1994, and he was a member of the White House Domestic Policy Council from 1993 to 1996. During that same period, he also served as special assistant to President Bill Clinton for Agricultural Trade and Food Assistance.
In 1996, he left the White House, and, seeking a different avenue to promote trade and rural prosperity, as well as Arkansas’s farming interests, he returned to the electoral arena. After winning the run-off in the Democratic primary against Tom Donaldson, he won the November election to represent Arkansas’s First District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Once elected to office, Berry never received less than sixty percent of the vote in any reelection effort, and he was twice unopposed, including in his final run in 2008. He was also a delegate to the Democratic Party’s national convention in 2000, 2004, and 2008.
While a member of the House, Berry served on the powerful House Committee on Appropriations and its subcommittees on Homeland Security; Energy and Water Development; Military Construction; Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies; Transportation; Treasury; and Housing and Urban Development. In addition, he served on the influential House Budget Committee, seeking balanced budgets and a reduction of the national debt while safeguarding Social Security and Medicare. He was outspoken in his opposition to amassing additional deficits, and he gained national attention in 2005 when he became so impassioned in his opposition to that year’s budget resolution that he violated House rules in referring to Florida Republican Adam Putnam as “a howdy doody–looking nimrod.”
Throughout his tenure in the House, Berry was also a strong advocate of increased funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as expanded services for veterans’ families, and he also worked to repeal the Survivor Benefit Penalty. Berry, who played an important role in the passage of the 2002 Farm Bill, was also an advocate of reopening trade with Cuba, believing it would provide valuable markets for Arkansas’s farmers.
He was heavily involved in healthcare issues, working to expand access to healthcare for the poor and in rural areas, but he opposed President Barack Obama’s healthcare plan. The generally socially conservative Berry opposed abortion rights and gay rights, supported the 2002 Iraq War Resolution, and approved of the 2008 and 2009 bank bailout and economic stimulus plans. He belonged to numerous congressional organizations, including the Blue Dog Coalition, the Congressional Rural Caucus, and the Rural Working Group. He was the co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition Health Care Task Force, a member of the Rural Health Care Coalition, co-chair of the House Democratic Health Care Task Force, and co-chair of the House Affordable Medicine Task Force.
He had a string of easy reelection campaigns. After running unopposed in 2008, Berry decided not to seek reelection in 2010. Instead he returned to Arkansas, where he lives with his wife, Carolyn, whom he married in 1962. The couple has two grown children, a son and a daughter.
Since his retirement, Berry has been recognized with numerous awards and honors. In 2012, he was the recipient of the Arkansas Rice Council’s Lifetime of Public Service award, and he was inducted into the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame in 2013.
While he has had some health problems, Berry has stayed involved in the political scene, including publishing a forceful editorial piece in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on behalf of Senator Mark Pryor during Pryor’s 2014 U.S. Senate campaign.
For additional information:Leahy, Michael. “Robert Marion Berry.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 6, 1997, pp. 1D, 6D.
“R. Marion Berry.” Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame. http://arkansasaghalloffame.org/inductees/r-marion-berry/ (accessed August 13, 2015).
“Robert Marion Berry.” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=b000420 (accessed August 13, 2015).
“Robert Marion Berry.” Project Vote Smart. http://votesmart.org/candidate/biography/430/marion-berry#.VVYlQrlVhHw (accessed August 13, 2015).
William H. Pruden III Ravenscroft School
Last Updated 8/21/2015
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