The Cross Maker by Peter Magliocco

I was one who held her flesh with palms
scaling the roses of Sunday
to mold each part of her

into a resurrected whole
of the first woman born again
to feel my life’s immersion

breathe into her neck’s pureness
the fabled image female flux impassioned
so I could see the mother I extolled there,

in seeping light from chiaroscuro beyond
all outstretched slavering need
pooled into the human vortex

before the first crusader came
to torture all cave dwellers
into loving a cross of bones

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The Arkansas Fixer by Stacey Margaret Jones

He throws the faxed court papers down on the metal Starbucks outdoor table after his “Hey, girl!” greeting and quick, but sincere side-hug. “Read this!” He starts inside to get coffee and turns, “What do you want? I’ll buy!” His Southern accent puts an exclamation point at the end of many of his sentences, as he disappears behind the chain café’s tinted windows.

This self-described “street lawyer,” who would “rather be working on his lawn or cleaning his house” than arguing before the state’s Supreme Court, which he has done many times, is Newport, Arkansas, native David Couch, architect of 2014’s controversial—and unsuccessful—Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Amendment initiated measure, which sought to circumvent the sucking bog of individual dry-county petition drives in Arkansas by rounding up signatures statewide, including from voters in already wet counties, to get it on the November 4, 2014, ballot. If it had been approved, regardless of local county statutes, alcohol could have legally been sold in every county statewide. That same election cycle, he also shepherded to the ballot, a successful initiated measure to increase the state’s minimum wage and defended that effort against a state Supreme Court challenge as well. And he wrote large sections of the successful Referred Issue 3, which expanded term limits, increased legislator pay and clamped much stricter limits on lobbyists and the gifts lawmakers can accept. On that starting-to-cool October day in 2014, in the countdown to Election Day, he was in faded jeans, a plaid button-down and cowboy boots, his longish blond-to-graying hair falling on his forehead in front and on his ears and collar on the sides and back.

After coffee, in his nearby Heights-neighborhood office, with its outsider-art-covered walls, Razorback-red leather club chairs and a file cabinet covered with bumper stickers advocating liberal causes, Couch reflected on what he does when things don’t go his way.

“I fix it,” he said, nodding. “I just get to work and fix it.”

He got to work and “fixed it” multiple times during the winter of 2015 and 2016, when the state’s attorney general repeatedly rejected the language of his major effort for the fall of 2016, an initiative to legalize medical marijuana in Arkansas. Leslie Rutledge kept rejecting it; he kept revising and resubmitting it. In February, her office approved the language, and the work for a ballot-box win was on as he organized petitions and canvassing personnel.

Couch is what is known in political-science circles as a “policy entrepreneur,” according to Jay Barth, the M.E. and Ima Graves Peace Distinguished Professor of Politics at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas.

“That’s somebody who goes out and, as an individual, really pushes forward a policy,” said Barth, over coffee at Community Bakery in Little Rock’s gentrifying SoMa neighborhood. This puts on him the burden of passing the policies he advocates for publicly, but it also holds the possibility of elevating him as “someone who is important to the process.”

Barth explained that Arkansas is uniquely suited in the South as a place such policy entrepreneurs may emerge. Because of its initiated measure law, Arkansans, with the right number of signatures procured according to protocol, can put measures on the ballot for other Arkansans to vote on—this isn’t possible in surrounding states like Missouri and Texas, where it’s either onerously more difficult or not allowed for at all.

“It creates the possibility of somebody, like David, who is deeply interested in policy and politics to become that entrepreneur,” said Barth.

Couch jokes that the term is a euphemism for “loudmouth,” or “troublemaker,” but he sees such a role as a correction for the ways in which the system can go wrong, because the issues he works on populist issues the state Legislature is ill-equipped or unwilling to take on.

For this November, Couch is working on at least three initiated measures for voters which include the proposal to allow medical marijuana prescribed by a physician as well as another alcohol consumption law that is not as wide ranging as well as continued efforts to constrain gifts and funding from lobbyists to state legislators.

“These are things that people really want, but the General Assembly doesn’t have the desire or the intestinal fortitude to do,” he said about a year after his alcohol measure went down to defeat with the voters, and three years after his first attempt at medical marijuana was also beaten, though narrowly.

He’s open to other efforts as well, and the open door to his one-room law office invites people in who might have something else they need to get done. He says he’s up to the challenge.

This is a man who loves the South, though maybe not the South you’re thinking of. Raised in the Church of Christ tradition in Newport, Arkansas, in the attentive environment of an extended family, grandparents on both sides in town, he felt the focus of a close-knit family and its love of its oldest grandchild.

But Couch’s childhood wasn’t an idyll of Southern charm and slow summer breezes. His mother fell while she was pregnant with him, her first child, injuring her head, and when he was in second grade she had a seizure while driving and ran them into a ditch, ending her driving days for good. Her childhood rheumatic fever was the real, lurking threat to her health, resulting in serious heart damage. When Couch was 5-years-old, and his younger sister, Joy, was an infant, his mother had open-heart-surgery, in which she had a pig-valve put in to replace one of her own cardiac valves. Her death in 2000 was unexpected, the result of a surgery to repair an earlier procedure. Couch was then 42.

He grew up helping on the family’s farm. His aunt, Brenda Dawson, 72, who lived in a family home in Newport, and spoke to me before her own sudden death in a car accident in December 2015, said he helped out summer and winter. “He learned to do everything involved in farming,” she recalled.

During college, he clerked, indulging his interest in the workings of government and policy. He originally studied architecture long enough to find himself in pre-calculus, before switching to political science at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, spent some time working on an MBA in Kansas City and then returned to Little Rock to law school at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

He described his sojourn in KC as the “most miserable nine months of my life.” When he realized he was living in a city on the same parallel with Pittsburgh, a bitter rival of his then-beloved Dallas Cowboys football team, he returned to Little Rock, where he went to law school. After law school, he was offered high-paying jobs in Dallas and Houston firms, but Texas wasn’t for him.

Of course, a lot of his Texas animosity has to do with sports, the Cowboys, to be specific: The wound to Couch is deep and personal: “When Jerry Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys, he unceremoniously dismissed Tom Landry. I’ll like the Cowboys again when Jerry Jones sells the team to somebody nice.”

And the Texas Longhorns were his beloved Razorbacks’ bitter rival. “That was back in the old days when Arkansas was in the Southwest Conference and we hated everyone from Texas, except for Tom Landry,” he said, explaining his decision to turn down a $90,000 a year job in 1982 for $27,000 annually in Little Rock. “It was less, but it was more. It wasn’t Texas.”

“In some ways, David romanticizes rural Arkansas,” said Marsha Scott, owner of Natural State Strategies and a longtime state and national politico, who has worked with Couch on his initiated-measure efforts for the past two-plus years. “He holds on to his roots in that way, but they’re really grounded in his best version of who we are.”

She spoke of his accent, his syntax, and his small-town Arkansan ways. “David could have unlearned that if he had chosen to, but he has chosen to stay in the truck, the jeans, to stay deliberately rural, fiercely proud of being small town, gun totin’, the ‘bubba,’ but he’s a very enlightened bubba. He’s using that stereotype to bust the stereotype.”

Scott, who is the one degree of separation between Couch and Arkansas’s most famous progressive son, Bill Clinton, describes Couch as “very Gandhi-like, but without the self-discipline of Gandhi.”

“David’s fun,” she said. “He wants to be able to drink, and talk long into the night, go fishing in clean water, and he wants to hunt if he feels like, he wants his son, and hopefully his grandchildren, to have a great education, and he wants everybody to eat good food, without a lot of rules and regulations. He’s got that strong independence… a live-and-let-live type.”

Back in November 2014, the court papers he brought to coffee had to do with that year’s initiated measure No. 5, which Couch also wrote, to increase the minimum wage. The measure, which was approved by a large margin of voters, will raise the wage from $6.25 to $8.50 over the course of three years. A Stephens-banking heir had brought an action to strike it from the ballot, contending not enough signatures were valid to qualify it for a vote by the people. Couch, defended the measure before the Court, allowing that while some of the means of notarizing the signatures were not kosher, the signatures themselves were those of qualified voters, who wanted to see the initiative on the ballot. His argument saved 8,000 signatures, even with acknowledged notary fraud, and kept the measure on the ballot so Arkansas voters could ultimately approve it.

“This is from the Special Master,” he explained of the fax. “He is a retired Justice appointed by the Court to research the issue and give an opinion, see?” He turned the papers away from him as he explained the documents, and then turned them back toward himself to look more carefully at the opinion.

“Now see, he took 386 away from us, but gave us 388, so we’re actually a few ahead.” He laughed that the challenge actually netted signatures for his side. He smiled but didn’t take his eyes from the typed pages. His finger glided down the left margin as he absorbed the decision and ticked information into his brain with finger strikes.

“Good news!” He replaced the front page of the stapled file and slapped the table. “You can make mistakes. But you can fix them,” he said, explaining the Court’s final decision in his, and the measure’s, favor.

Couch’s first Little Rock legal job was with an old Arkansas firm, House Holmes & Jewell, which had as a founding partner, Joe T. Robinson, a progressive senator from Arkansas, who was nominated to the Supreme Court by FDR, and was the Democratic candidate for vice president on Al Smith’s ticket in 1928. In the 1980s, the firm was working on a lot of billable hours for Arkansas Power & Light, now Entergy.

Though he stayed with this job for twenty years, Couch acknowledged he wasn’t the old-school law-firm type. “I was always the rebel at the other firm. I’d come to work in jeans. I mean, I had really long hair,” he said. “But I don’t know if they were happy to see me go, because I did all the work they thought was ‘gutter law’ or ‘street law,’ and they had to have, like, the ‘mechanic,’ you know? They had to have someone like me around.”

He was the one who went to court to make deals for clients with DWI charges. “I’m the fixer, fixin’ things,” he said.

The “fixer’s” Arkansas roots are small-town-and-getting-smaller, which is the story of Newport, Arkansas, in the northeast part of the state, not far from Jonesboro. Couch’s Aunt Brenda was careful to differentiate between the Newport of now and the Newport of Couch’s youth when she gave me a tour shortly before her death. While some of the change is inevitable—this bank gave way to that bank—some of it is economic decrepitude, as she indicated recently blighted areas of town.

Couch knows what he attributes this blight to, the small-mindedness of Newport citizenry that failed to embrace the ideas of a young entrepreneur, Sam Walton. When Walton’s successful lease on a Ben Franklin store was not renewed in 1959, he left for Bentonville, in Northwest Arkansas. Years later, Newport got the eighteenth Walmart store, but not the Walmart economy that has been a life force in Northwest Arkansas.

In his childhood, Couch said there was a “vibrant downtown, with shops, a movie theater and cafes.” But now there are abandoned buildings and slabs of concrete on otherwise empty lots. “Of course,” Couch said, “There is a bronze plaque where the Ben Franklin was, commemorating Sam Walton”

Only a few months before the car crash that took both their lives, David’s cousin, Jeff Dawson, sat with Brenda, his mother, in their Newport home. Jeff said David got the “old Southern ways” from their mutual grandfather, Oscar Johnson.  Jeff also noted that Couch “hates bullies. That’s his major, defining thing.”

After each election cycle, from pundits to individual voters, Americans ponder what the outcomes in aggregate mean. Who is getting the mandate? What party is out and what party is in? What is the political temperature of the nation? And, most importantly, what are the inherent features of democracy that will fix the failures of democracy?

After the November 2014 election results, when the alcohol amendment was defeated, but minimum wage and ethics were approved, Couch contemplated the nature of Arkansas politics.

“Arkansans are like any voters,” he said. “They vote for self interest,” and this is why they approved ethics reforms and minimum wage increases, but voted into office politicians likely to oppose such measures ideologically. Presented with the individual laws, instead of the kind of person who might support them, they approved them. Presented with individuals who embodied opposition to a Democratic president and branch of Congress, they also elected them.

Couch’s explanation is a different sad story from voters choosing people who don’t support their interests, but it is a sad story. “If President Obama weren’t black, Arkansas might be a blue state,” he asserted, leaning back in the desk chair in his office in mid-November 2014, after his two wins and loss. “It’s part of the Southern legacy, the Southern culture. It’s not right, but it’s real.”

Couch asserts that his home state Democrats lost their way. “If the Democrats in Arkansas had embraced all the positive accomplishments and not run a Republican-light campaign, we would have won,” he said.

But there’s more to the South than broad political party strokes, he explained.

“Yankees don’t understand the South, because they don’t understand the shared sense of history we have here,” he said, noting that his great-grandfather fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, and his great-great-great grandfather was in the Revolutionary War. “If I could make a new Confederate flag, one without the connotations of slavery and racism, I would proudly fly it, because I am a Southerner, too and belong to that as much as I am an American.” For some, all the ramifications of the Confederacy still seem to hold sway, for voters and for politicians alike.

And when the system is too broken to pass the laws people want, the voters must provide the balance, not just the checks. But what contemporary Americans may forget about Arkansas, that Couch and Professor Barth recall, is the state’s progressive tradition, which Barth says now includes Couch.

“He’s definitely an Arkansan,” said Barth. “He’s generally progressive on a lot of social issues, and that is the Arkansas political tradition: Bill Clinton, Dale Bumpers, there was clearly a progressive streak there. It’s faded over the events of the last six or seven years, but it was there, not that long ago.”

Couch identifies with that tradition, and uses its artifact, the initiated measure law in Arkansas, to help create the state he believes in. “I think if you look at Bumpers and David Pryor, McClellan and Fulbright and Wilbur Mills, they captured the spirit of Arkansas,” said Couch. “You’re not going to out-Republican a Republican. It doesn’t even make sense. You have to have the difference in parties. You have to.”

And so, the boyish 5-foot 10-inch “street lawyer” is returning to the voters again this fall with another medical marijuana bill after his initial unsuccessful bid four years ago.

In fact, a fall 2015 Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College/Impact Management Group survey, indicated that 56 percent of Arkansans strongly agree that citizens should be able to use medical marijuana if it is prescribed by a physician, and 28 percent somewhat agree. That means 84 percent of Arkansans support medical marijuana. A University of Arkansas poll also found a majority in favor. Contrast this with a 2012 Talk Business poll that reported only a 38 percent favorability rating for the measure.

“I don’t really think we’ve changed that many people’s minds,” said Couch. “I think what we’ve done is that we’ve just helped people know that it’s okay to be in favor of this law. Once an Arkansan gets comfortable with a progressive position, they can let themselves say to their neighbor that they support medical marijuana, or that they don’t believe in the death penalty. It’s okay to do what they taught you in Bible School, to love your neighbor. You can look at the haters and say no to their manipulation.”

He pointed to a yard sign in his office, stating “YES ON 5!”— medical marijuana’s identity on the 2012 ballot. “Forty-eight percent of the people voted for that. A majority of Arkansans currently supports it. You’re not going to find anybody in the General Assembly that is going to say they’re for that, anybody that will file a bill for that. They’re always in safe mode.” The political science major explains that this is somewhat how the system saves the populace from radical fronts, “but it’s more often stifling,” he said.

While Couch has a point, the initiated measure isn’t the answer to every policy problem, according to Barth. “There are good arguments on both sides,” he said of the initiated measure strategy. “It can lead to bad consequences in the sense that voters may not have a good understanding of what they’re voting on, the language.”

The absolutism of such measures can also be an issue. “It’s an up or down vote rather than the legislative process that allows measures to be crafted,” said Barth, pointing out the value of the give-and-take that goes on among legislators and between houses as a bill works its way from introduction to the governor’s desk.

“The initiated measure is not a perfect process,” said the political science professor. “But no government process is a perfect process.” He did point out that such efforts don’t proceed in a vacuum and can influence the legislature to take action if lawmakers see a more extreme measure could be approved by voters.

“If you have a radical measure that looks like it’s going to pass, sometimes the legislature will pre-empt that,” he said. “It’s all part of the system. If the legislature knows that the people will do it themselves, sometimes they go ahead and take that step.”

Couch considered the legislators tasked with most of the state’s law-making.

“There’s not a populist person in the entire general assembly, not someone I would consider to be a populist—or one brave enough to admit it,” he said. “This is the weirdest thing in the world, because if someone ever ran in Arkansas as a populist, they would win. Period.” He names some of the senior and bygone stars of the Arkansas political firmament: “That’s what Bumpers was, Pryor, Fulbright, McClellan. That’s what they were.”

For this liberal lawyer in a red state peopled by populists, where there’s the will of one voter, multiplied, there is a way, and Couch wants to give them the opportunity to be part of the solution.

Couch’s current personal-injury practice focuses on advocating for patients injured or killed through negligence in nursing homes, but the trial lawyer got his first experience with the politics of initiated measures at House Holmes & Jewell on behalf of a client trying to get a casino built in West Memphis. He recalled how they worked on it twice, and both times the state Supreme Court pulled the measures from the ballot, even after the signatures were gathered, notarized and filed, for different reasons, all political, he said, accomplished with what he saw as shady means.

“It was really a screwing,” he said. “But I really liked that work, because it’s fun, because you can be political without being a politician.” After that, he worked on the first initiative in Arkansas to take the sales tax off food, which the political establishment decried on behalf of the state’s budget. “I drafted it. We circulated it. Every politician said we were crazy, the state would go broke,” he recalled.

“They fought it, and we never got enough signatures to get it on the ballot. Then, what? Ten years later? Governor Beebe files the bill to take the tax off food and is a hero. And you know what? Even if you don’t pass a measure at first, you elevate the discourse on the issue for a later day.”

The first time Marsha Scott heard the name “David Couch” was about three years ago, when she and Couch were on the opposite sides of a natural-gas taxation issue.  “It was during the campaign that I started noticing that the opposition was getting a little smarter,” she recalled in the campaign headquarters as she waited for Fayetteville to adopt a civil rights ordinance in a vote that day. Someone told her David Couch was helping her opposition. “So I Googled him, and he was linked to all the progressive issues that I believed in, and I thought, ‘Gosh! He’s really good!’ He was always one step ahead of me.”

“I grew up in the Church of Christ,” Couch said, trying to describe his political beliefs, which differ from many in the Bible Belt. “You peel away the evangelical thing, and you look at what you really are supposed to do as a person, and I think that’s it, that’s where my beliefs come from. Maybe I filtered the bullshit out and caught the ‘Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world’ idea.” He confessed that he no longer goes to church, but should, and has attended a Little Rock United Methodist congregation after leaving the Church of Christ tradition.

“My grandparents and parents, despite the fact they went to the Church of Christ, I never heard them say a bad word about anybody. I had as many black friends as I had white friends growing up, and I grew up in the segregated South, so I mean, that’s it, that’s the foundation of my political beliefs—it’s also supposed to be the foundation of a religion,” he asserts.

“In the end, I think it’s the fact that I like everybody,” Couch said. “If anybody ever told me I was pretentious, that would be the biggest insult in the whole world. I would be devastated. Look, everybody’s the same to me, and if you go across the state like I did on marijuana or alcohol or whatever, and you get to know people, you see that. And I’m just like everybody else: You have these talents, and you don’t bury them in the sand. I feel like I have some ability to do this, and if I didn’t do this, then that would be not doing what I was supposed to do.”

One of his talents, he said, is to “fade the heat.” When he first was brought in to the medical marijuana issue, he was nervous about how it would look.

“I thought ‘Oh my God, I’m going to sit here and talk about marijuana and stuff. People are gonna think I’m a pothead, and there was some hesitation,” he remembered. “But then I started talking to people…and they would confide in me, and then all of a sudden I realized that there’s this whole big group of people who are probably the vast majority who think it’s okay, and you should be able to get the treatment you need. It’s the perception, and I just got to where I wasn’t worried about the perception.”

In the days before the November 2014 election, he complained, “The Christians are investigating me!” Citizens for Local Rights had filed a complaint against Let Arkansas Decide with the Ethics Commission, and he had to file paperwork listing all his expenditures and contributions. He sat with the filing while his open door invited drop-ins and visitors from the building and beyond.

“They can’t believe I can do what I’ve done with the little money I’ve got,” he told several people, laughing. He manned his phone, calling media outlets and supporters, asking for information for the filing. When his phone rang, it played a Kenny Chesney tune.

Former Arkansas Governor and Senator Dale Bumpers’ son dropped in to ask how the “beer amendment” was going. A worker’s compensation attorney from down the hall in the office tower checked in, telling everyone in the office that he often praises Couch for “working less, dressing more casually than I do and making more money!” But in 2015 Couch admitted that he doesn’t “share well,” and what he meant is he doesn’t delegate or partner.

“It’s like if you want something done, I feel like I have to do it myself,” he said.

While Barth thinks Couch is more engaged in the process of getting things on the ballot than in getting voters to go his way, Scott said team-building to get that done can be an issue for Couch. “It’s challenging when people want process and a hierarchy,” she said, because Couch does things on his own time. “He’s the star of his own drama,” she said. “He’s rewriting the acts as he goes.”

The man Scott described as a “lead horse,” a “Don Quixote” and “a star” is uniquely suited to play this role in Arkansas, not just once for one issue, but repeatedly, election after election, and it’s something Barth would like to see because Couch is not necessarily suited to run for office, a more traditional role in politics.

One reason may be a Couch family trait his aunt Brenda pled guilty to as well. While she said she marked him as he was growing up to play her own role in the family, to take care of everybody, “which he does,” she did admit that he has weaknesses, or at least traits that wouldn’t work for a member of the General Assembly.

“He doesn’t like to be told what to do,” she emphasized.

His cousin Jeff agreed, “That’s kind of a family trait,” he said. “We’ll give you the shirt off our back, but don’t tell us what to do.” Even his father, Alfred Couch, chatting on the lawn of a friend’s Newport home, seemed torn about his son being a candidate, confident he could win, standing taller with pride at the thought of it, but not sure David would like the constraining life of politicians in Little Rock.

While Barth doesn’t like to discourage anyone from running for office, he’s not as interested in Candidate Couch as he is in Couch’s current potential to change the state in the work he’s doing.

“I think he’s pretty good at what he does,” Barth said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of people with the talents he has. I think he has a specialized talent, and I think there’s something valuable about that.”

Scott is the most emphatic in answer to the question of whether Couch should run for office. “No, no and no!” She said, laughing. “And I don’t think he would because he has an almost knee-jerk reaction to over-authority and to rules just for the sake of rules. David needs a sense of freedom.”

She thinks the legislature is the wrong place for him. “He would actually have to sit and listen to the legislators. David’s very active; he fidgets in his seat. His mind is too fast. He’s probably too bright for that job, and he can do so much more in the private sector.”

But Scott does acknowledge that people from both sides of the aisle are drawn to Couch because he is an “honest dealer,” transparent with his information, a coalition-builder. But she says he’s not just a liberal, he’s a radical.

Even so, “It’s hard not to like David. He’s got good friends who are very, very conservative legislators,” Scott said. “He’s seductive to men and women in that even if they start out holding themselves physically back, pretty soon, they’re leaning in, and they’re telling him things.” Couch eschewed the idea of playing a more traditional role in politics in Arkansas. “Then you’re in that muckety-muck,” he said referring to the legislative session and the constant give and take and push and pull of politics.

“I’ll tell you this,” he said, sitting up in his chair and uncrossing his arms in a somewhat rare open posture. “The only office I would ever remotely consider would be attorney general, because you’re the people’s lawyer, and you represent the people.” He lists the AG’s responsibilities: consumer protection, making sure utilities charge fair rates, protecting nursing-home residents, enforcing Medicaid law against fraudsters.

“You don’t have to answer to anybody other than the people, and you aren’t trying to cut this kind of deal or that kind of deal,” he reflected. “I’d be doing what I do today, but only on a broader scope.”

Couch has the talents for the job he’s doing—literally and figuratively. Dawson, Scott and Barth all referred to the trial-lawyer career that has led to his financial success, thus giving him the Scott referenced as being necessary to any role in which Couch would willingly fill.

“I’m independent. I don’t have to work for anybody,” said Couch about career. “I live within my means and I have a good income from my law practice. And that’s the same thing I do with these initiatives. In my job, I represent people who have been neglected in nursing homes, and in the ballot work, I represent people who have been neglected by politicians. I get paid for one; I haven’t been paid for the other.”

But still those with money and freedom don’t necessarily have the expertise: to write the initiatives, to deal with the attorney general’s office, to manage the law overseeing the collection of signatures, to defend legal challenges, to appear before the Arkansas Supreme Court if necessary.

“Marijuana got challenged in 2012, and I argued for it,” he said. “Minimum wage got challenged last time, and I stepped up to the plate and did it, despite the fact that all the political consultants and advertising firms were making bazillions of dollars, somebody had to defend it, and nobody wanted to pay to defend it, so I did.”

These efforts aren’t ends in themselves. The quintessential Arkansan with his jeans, cowboy boots, dogs, fishing pole and reliance on the word “ain’t,” wants the state he loves to be its best, to live up to the potential of its progressive tradition.

One of Couch’s memories growing up was camping in Heber Springs on the weekends or for extended periods of the summer after the dam dedicated by President Kennedy in October 1963 created Greers Ferry Lake. Senator Fulbright accompanied JFK to the event, and Couch, his father, mother and younger sister, Joy, enjoyed the fruits of that labor, before there were any facilities or resorts catering to the tourists who eventually came and came and came.

His aunt Brenda said that though he talks of retiring, she was not sure that would ever happen, and Couch scoffs at the thought. “I never want to retire. It’s too fun. It’s too fun,” he said. Brenda didn’t think he’d end up back in the Newport he loves and still actively (and financially) supports. Regardless, he’ll stay in Arkansas, an Arkansas he is helping create.

“He wants an Arkansas that’s in harmony,” said his aunt. “One of the things he has not liked is the way that the people who have tried to keep alcohol from being county-to-county put in a lot of money to keep their own license and not let other people open up their own stores in their own counties. To him, that’s just not a fair deal.”

But Couch disagreed with the idea he is creating something; he just wants Arkansas to be Arkansas.

“I disagree with a lot of the political pundits that have cast Arkansas as this red, dark state,” he said. “I think the people of Arkansas are very kind-hearted and progressive. If you put progressive issues out there where people can vote that issue up or down, I think Arkansas can pass a lot of good things.”

What are some of those “good things”? When he’s feeling expansive, rolling around in his office chair, filing and straightening up, Couch rattles off a number of possible future initiated measures, including universal Pre-K, prison and sentencing reform and more campaign-money reforms.

Barth sees the value of initiated measures when it comes to popular initiatives that take state funds, making them DOA in the state house, but very much alive at the polls. He agreed with Pre-K and after-school/summer programs, independent redistricting commissions, and voter ID but he also thinks some environmental measures, addressing fracking and the like could be very popular activist issues among voters. He also thinks Arkansas may have too many elected officials that Couch and his cohort could talk voters into eliminating.

Couch agreed with all these efforts, but he thinks he could also get Arkansans to repeal the death penalty in their state, while Barth thinks that is “not a winner at this point.”

Standing in the parking lot of his office building, on his way to hear Chelsea Clinton speak, Couch heard that Barth thinks the death penalty is an issue for the legislature, not the voters, and therefore not for Couch. “I’m going to do it just to prove everyone wrong!” he laughed, because the Fixer doesn’t like to be told what to do—or what he can’t do.

Back in 2014, before the election and its results were known, and plans were made to fix them, Couch had lunch in one of his favorite Little Rock hang-outs, Hillcrest Southern food landmark the Oyster Bar. After greeting several friends also waiting on their po’ boy sandwiches and gumbo, Couch talked about what the voters might do at the polls that year.

“I hope that alcohol wins, I really, really do,” he said. “But if it doesn’t, I already have lined up what I’m going to do the day after. I mean, I know exactly what I’m going to do.”

He had specific plans. “I don’t wanna lose, but it doesn’t bother me if I lose. Sun’s gonna come up in the morning, you know?” He picked up a piece of fried okra and popped it into his mouth, mumbling, “It’s like popcorn.”

Couch wants his work to be part of the solution, the people’s checks and balances on breaking or broken-down government.

“Whatever happens on election day, I’ll fix it,” he said. “I’ll just fix it.”

Author Photo by Hannah Scarlet

The kindly author
in his well-posed portrait
belies a sense of decorum
lacking in his work.

From the academic dress,
astute expression, one would
hardly guess that his work
would be populated with
war-time horrors, extended
bedroom scenes.

Until one looks deeper
into the eyes, sees the worn
image glancing back
beneath the wrinkles and dents.

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