LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — On a recent Saturday morning, a steady flow of people pop into the Clinton Museum Store in downtown Little Rock near the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park.
The store sells all-things Clinton—magnets, books, dolls, retro T-shirts from the 1992 campaign, sweatshirts that say “I Miss Bill” and hundreds of other Clinton-related items. Tourists usually flock to the store after visiting Bill Clinton’s library and many arrive in Little Rock on flights that land at the Bill and Hillary National Airport.
Although Bill and Hillary Clinton chose to live in New York after leaving the White House, the Clinton brand remains so strong in Arkansas that the state could be called Clintonland. In downtown Little Rock, Clinton Avenue leads to the Clinton presidential library, and a bust of Bill Clinton stands nears the gates of the Governor’s Mansion. Hillary Clinton has a children’s library named in her honor, and “Ready For Hillary” stickers have been plastered on cars in the state for months.
And after Hillary Clinton’s announcement yesterday that she would be running for president, Clinton friends and city leaders say that another run could only be good for the state that the couple first called home.
“The Clintons are like the Energizer bunny, it just keeps on going and going, and here we go again,” said Skip Rutherford, dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and a longtime friend of the Clintons. Perhaps better than anyone in Arkansas, he understands the impact the Clinton brand has had on the state. After all, he helped to create it.
Rutherford supervised the planning and construction of the Clinton Presidential Center and Park, a formerly abandoned warehouse site near the Arkansas River, and served as founding president of the William J. Clinton Foundation. Researchers from around the world visit Little Rock to comb through documents at the Clinton library. In fact, Rutherford said plenty of researchers are currently at the archives looking through documents related to Hillary Clinton. The Clinton School of Public Service is in its 10th year and students have performed nearly 700 field service projects around the world, he said.
Near the library in downtown Little Rock, construction of everything from loft apartments to hotels and restaurants has not stopped since Bill Clinton announced his library in 1997. According to the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, the library has generated more than $2 billion in investment locally and has had a total economic impact of $3.3 billion. In the 10 years since the center opened, more than 3 million visitors from around the world have visited, and travel expenditures in Pulaski County have increased by more than 68 percent, Gretchen Hall, president and CEO of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, said.
“The Clintons have had a tremendous impact on Arkansas, and especially Little Rock,” said Hall. “Should Secretary Clinton be elected as president, I feel certain that the Clintons’ unique place in our state and country’s history, as the first woman president and first couple to be individually elected as president, would continue to raise our city’s profile and have a positive impact on our tourism industry.”
But while the Clintons may be worshipped in many pockets of Arkansas, state Republicans aren’t giving Hillary an ounce of love. On Sunday, just minutes after her announcement, Arkansas Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb said in a statement that Hillary has been running for president for more than a decade and from scandal much longer.
“Arkansas voters are all too familiar with the Clinton political style—thinking laws and regulations about transparency and accountability don’t apply to them,” Webb said. “I can’t wait to see how Clinton will attempt to sidestep her conflicts of interest and hypocrisies on issues important to everyday Arkansans. Hillary Clinton may be able to delete her emails, but she can’t delete her record.”
Rutherford counters that Hillary Clinton’s accomplishments in Arkansas when she was the state’s first lady shouldn’t be forgotten. For instance, he credits her for the neonatal clinic at Arkansas Children’s Hospital that opened in the 1980s.
“Without Hillary Clinton we wouldn’t have that neonatal clinic, and think about how many lives have been saved because of her vision,” Rutherford said. “She was pregnant with Chelsea and she went to New York and secured funding for it.”
He also points out that her work in Arkansas still pays dividends to children today. She brought the Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) program to the state for children to have education help at home. She also worked on improving education standards in Arkansas’s schools.
“All of her work then wasn’t for a short-term effect,” Rutherford said. “These things have to go through several generations to see an impact.”
But for all the excitement—or wariness—in Arkansas at the thought of another Clinton campaign, the yellow-dog Democratic Arkansas that Hillary Clinton once knew is gone. Since her last run in 2008, the state has turned sharply to the right, with Republicans holding the governorship, both legislative chambers and all state offices. And while Bill and Hillary Clinton may retain a strong legacy in Arkansas, she may not win the state.
“I think it is fair to say Hillary Clinton is seen as much more of a national figure,” said Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark. “And, in particular, she’s a national Democratic figure with ties to the Obama administration. While personal ties once trumped party in Arkansas politics, it’s safe to say that that is no longer the case and Arkansas is a very tough state for Democrats, even one with ties to the state. President Clinton invested time heavily in the state’s elections in 2014 and the result was not what he hoped or anticipated.”