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Mark Lunsford Pryor (1963–)

Mark Lunsford Pryor is an Arkansas lawyer and politician. Following in the footsteps of his father, David Pryor, he served two terms in the U.S. Senate as a Democrat before he was defeated for reelection in 2014.

Mark Pryor was born in Fayetteville (Washington County) on January 10, 1963, to David Pryor and Barbara Jean Lunsford Pryor. With his father serving first as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives—followed by service as governor and U.S. senator—Mark Pryor grew up in a politically oriented household in both Arkansas and Washington DC. He received a BA in history from the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville in 1985. He continued his studies at the University of Arkansas School of Law, receiving his law degree in 1988.

Following his admission to the bar, Pryor worked in private practice for ten years. He was elected to the state legislature in 1990, serving in the Arkansas House of Representatives from 1991 to 1995. In 1998, garnering almost sixty percent of the vote, he defeated Republican Betty Dickey to become Arkansas state attorney general, a post he held from 1999 to 2003.

Running for U.S. Senate as the Democratic nominee in 2002, Pryor won just under fifty-four percent of the vote to defeat the incumbent senator Tim Hutchinson. He then began the first of two terms in the U.S. Senate, assuming the same seat his father had held. Pryor was reelected in 2008 without Republican opposition, winning almost eighty percent of the vote against Green Party candidate Rebekah Kennedy. 

In the Senate, he served on the Appropriations Committee and was chair of the Subcommittee on Agricultural Appropriations. He also served on the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, chairing the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet. He was a member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee as well as the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. At the end of his tenure, he was a member of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee as well as the Senate Ethics Committee, while earlier in his career, he had served on the Armed Services Committee.

Pryor was recognized for providing a high level of constituent service, and he helped to secure millions of dollars in highway funds for the state. Pryor was also a committed advocate of the state’s military families; he guided the SACRIFICE Act to passage, thus providing families of those injured in combat more timely and reliable medical care.

Ideologically, Pryor was viewed as a centrist and a conservative Democrat who was often vocal about his religious views. Indeed, he received national attention for his appearance in Bill Maher’s film, Religulous, in which he offered some candid thoughts on his evangelical Christian faith. Politically, Pryor walked an often difficult line, representing a state with a growing Republican Party. Though he was generally supportive of President Barack Obama, he had his differences with the president. He was one of the few Senate Democrats not to support gay marriage, and he refused to endorse the administration’s plan to raise the minimum wage to $10.10, preferring a gradual approach.

Reflective of his generally conservative, centrist approach, Pryor was a member of the Gang of 14 in the 109th Congress. The bipartisan group sought to end the logjam surrounding judicial appointments that were being held up by filibusters. The Gang of 14 engineered an agreement whereby the stalled appointments would be allowed to go forward for a vote, and, in turn, there would be no effort to incorporate the filibuster-ending “nuclear option” into the Senate rules. Some hailed the group members as responsible leaders committed to making government work, while others castigated them for opposing their party leadership.

All of these issues and pressures played out in the 2014 Senate campaign. From the beginning, the contest was viewed as close, but Pryor’s experience, coupled with his reputation as a talented retail campaigner, was seen as a definite electoral plus against Tom Cotton, a young Republican serving only his first term in the House from the Fourth Congressional District. However, while Pryor’s anti-abortion stance played well at home with conservatives, as did his strong support of education and of gun rights (he was one of only four Democrats who opposed a bill that would have expanded required federal background checks for gun purchases), Cotton effectively tied the incumbent to the unpopular President Obama, highlighting in particular Pryor’s support of the president’s healthcare reform effort. The result was a 56.5–39.5 percent victory for the young Republican congressman.

In 2012, Pryor and his wife, Jill Pryor—with whom he had a son and a daughter—divorced after twenty years of marriage. In November 2014, he became engaged to Joi Whitfield of North Little Rock (Pulaski County).

In March 2015, Pryor joined the law firm of Venable LLC, serving in the firm’s governmental affairs sector and focusing on cybersecurity, consumer protection, and agriculture. It was announced that the former senator, who had expressed a desire to return to Arkansas, was going to set up a Little Rock (Pulaski County) office for the firm and would be splitting his time between there and the firm’s headquarters in Washington DC.

For additional information:
Brummett, John. “Mark Pryor Had Everything Going for Him.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 20, 1997, pp. 1E, 4E.

Caillouet, Linda S. “Mark Lunsford Pryor.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 3, 1993, High Profile, pp. 1D, 4D.

Cohn, Nate. “Arkansas, a Demographic Challenge for Democrats.” New York Times, October 22, 2014. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/23/upshot/arkansas-a-demographic-challenge-for-democrats.html?_r=0&abt=0002&abg=0 (accessed May 19, 2015).

“Mark Pryor.” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=p000590 (accessed May 19, 2015).

Schultheis, Emily. “This is Not the Arkansas Mark Pryor Once Knew.” National Journal, October 15, 2014. Online at http://www.nationaljournal.com/politics/this-is-not-the-arkansas-mark-pryor-once-knew-20141015 (accessed May 19, 2015).

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School

Last Updated 6/1/2015

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