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Sharon Priest served as a city director in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and as mayor of Little Rock before being elected Arkansas secretary of state in 1994, the first woman to be elected to that position in the state’s history. She was reelected and also selected to serve as president of the National Association of Secretaries of State. After her time as Arkansas secretary of state, she served as executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, working on the revitalization of the city’s Main Street area.
Sharon Mary Devlin was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on September 12, 1947, to Daniel Gerard Devlin and Margaret Meehan Devlin. While working for a Canadian distribution company for Munsey Products, based in Little Rock, she met long-time Munsey employee Bill Priest of Ward (Lonoke County), who visited Montreal on business in April 1974. In September 1974, she was sent to visit the Munsey operation in Arkansas, and she and Bill Priest were married in November 1974. They had one son, Adam.
With her husband, Sharon Priest settled in Little Rock. In 1978, a devastating flood struck the Little Rock area, killing several people. She directed an effort to bring flood relief to the stricken region, leading a petition drive for the Fourche Creek flood reduction project. Subsequently, she was appointed to the Little Rock City Beautiful Commission.
In 1986, she challenged an incumbent Little Rock city director, winning her first elective office. Serving on the Little Rock Board of Directors from 1986 to 1990, she addressed concerns including gang issues and public safety. In 1989, she was named vice mayor of Little Rock by the city board, and in 1991, following her reelection to the board, she was selected to serve as Little Rock’s mayor, becoming only the second woman to do so, following Lottie Shackelford.
Among her achievements as mayor were spearheading the effort toward the first Little Rock city flag and initiating a children’s arts and humanities curriculum in the Summer Parks Program. In 1992, during her mayoral tenure, Little Rock won an All-America City Award from the National Civic League.
In 1994, running as a Democrat, she defeated Republican Julia Hughes Jones to become the first woman elected Arkansas secretary of state. She was reelected in 1998, with her term ending in 2003. In 2000, she was named president of the National Association of Secretaries of State.
A champion of then-emerging technology, she had run for secretary of state on a platform of putting Arkansas on what was called the “information superhighway.” She had the first kiosk installed in the lobby of the Arkansas State Capitol building in which citizens could access forms and information.
Among her other accomplishments as secretary of state, she chaired the State Board of Election Commissioners, implemented a federally enacted “Motor Voter” registration program, chaired the Capitol Arts and Grounds Commission, organized the state’s History Advisory Council to review educational materials produced and distributed by the Secretary of State’s Office, and initiated statewide citizen advisory groups. After the contentious election for president of the United States in 2000, Priest testified before U.S. House and Senate Committees on election reform.
In January 2003, Priest was named executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership. During her first year, she reorganized the partnership, leading its efforts to revitalize Little Rock’s Main Street area in collaboration with private business and the city’s municipal government. Under her direction, the partnership focused on the redevelopment of existing structures as well as economic development, streetscape enhancement, and public safety. Priest was also a champion for the redevelopment of MacArthur Park, the oldest park in Little Rock. She was active in the initial planning process and dedication ceremony for the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park, which is cited as one of the main factors in Little Rock’s revitalization.
In 2015, Priest retired from the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, although she remained active in a family business, Re-Bath of Arkansas.
Her awards and distinctions include the Sandra Wilson Cherry Award for Excellence in Public Service, an Excellence in Leadership Fellowship, Fighting Back Freedom Fighter Award, Merit Award from the Arkansas Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Outstanding Leadership in Voter Education Award, Public Administrator of the Year Award, and the VISTA award from Little Rock Parks and Recreation. Priest received six Bernard de la Harpe Awards for Public Service from the Leadership Greater Little Rock Alumni Association. She was also named Distinguished Leader 2000 from the Leadership Greater Little Rock Alumni Association and was declared one of the “Top 100 Women in Arkansas” by Arkansas Business for five consecutive years, 1995–1999.
For additional information:Mahan, Leslie. “Sharon Mary Devlin Priest.” Arkansas Gazette, March 24, 1991, High Profile, pp. 1, 4.
“Sharon Priest.” Our Campaigns. http://www.ourcampaigns.com/CandidateDetail.html?CandidateID=2601 (accessed April 26, 2016).
Nancy Hendricks Garland County Historical Society
Last Updated 5/3/2016
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