In Arkansas, Hillary Clinton's Legacy Remains Potent

05/11/2015 04:11 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. –- Back in the sizzling summer of 1991, Arkansans could often find Bill and Hillary Clinton sitting in the bleachers at softball fields around Little Rock, as they watched their 11-year-old daughter Chelsea play third base for the Molar Rollers -- a team sponsored by a local dentist.

After the last out was made, Chelsea’s teammates would often get a thrill when the governor loaded them into his official vehicle and took them out to get frozen yogurt. But every now and then, Bill’s jam-packed schedule was such that Hillary was the only member of Arkansas’ first couple who could attend a particular game.

It was on one such occasion that longtime Clinton family friend Skip Rutherford -- whose daughter Martha was the Molar Rollers’ catcher -- struck up a conversation about national politics while sitting in the stands next to Hillary.

Still just a few months after the Persian Gulf War’s triumphant completion, President George H.W. Bush’s approval rating remained above 70 percent, and Rutherford shared the popular opinion at the time that his re-election was all but assured.

“Whoever ends up running, it doesn’t look like they’ll have much of a chance,” Rutherford recalls lamenting to Hillary. “I just don’t think President Bush can be beat. The numbers just look like he’s got the thing in the bag.”

Clinton -- the acclaimed attorney, who typically chose her words carefully -- pondered this for a moment before issuing her reply.

“Well, I’m not so sure,” she said.

“Really?” Rutherford shot back, not yet aware that her husband had begun contemplating a White House run.

“What the Democrats need is a message and a messenger,” Hillary said.

Clinton was, no doubt, referring to her husband. But in truth, “Billery,” as Bill and Hillary Clinton were known in Arkansas, was indeed a singular force, and it was impossible to talk about the achievements of the former without mentioning those of the latter.

Even today, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s legacy in Arkansas -- particularly in the realms of education, health care and childhood welfare -- remains nearly as robust as her husband’s.

This is, after all, a city where a 15-minute drive eastward can take you from the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library along President Clinton Avenue and then on to Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport.

As the Democratic frontrunner revs up her second campaign for the presidency, one of most common critiques that Republicans levy against Hillary Clinton goes something like this: “Yeah, she has a long resume. But what has she actually accomplished?”

On the federal stage, she has had some significant swings and misses that have fed into that perception. Among the most politically toxic: her failed 1993 health care reform push as U.S. first lady, and the Russia “reset” policy and botched response to the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attacks when she was secretary of state.

Perhaps the simplest rebuttal that Clinton could deliver would be this: “Just look at what I left behind in Arkansas.”

And while her achievements in the state are now a quarter-century or more in the rearview mirror, the Clinton campaign says it isn’t shying away from running, in part, on the now-distant past.

“Every aspect of Hillary’s professional life is an important part of the story for voters in this election because her collective body of work demonstrates a proven track record of being a tenacious fighter for everyday Americans, their families and especially their children,” said Clinton spokesperson Adrienne Elrod. “People know that’s what she’ll do if she gets elected because it’s what she’s always done."

Clinton developed her curiosity -- and ultimately her expertise -- in the issues that would define her tenure as first lady of Arkansas before she moved to the state with the future president.

Following her graduation from Yale Law School in 1973, Hillary Rodham spent a year conducting postgraduate work at the Yale Child Study Center, during which time she published a widely cited article in the Harvard Educational Review examining how children were viewed under the law, and offering significant proposals for reform.

She also landed a job working for the Children’s Defense Fund, where she worked to expose discrepancies between census data and school enrollment -- a time she recalled at the first public event of her 2016 campaign in Monticello, Iowa, this April.

“I was knocking on doors saying, ‘Is there anybody school-aged who’s not in school?’ and finding blind kids and deaf kids and kids in wheelchairs who were just left out,” she recalled. “And I was able in Arkansas to work and try to improve education there and give more kids chances who really deserved them.”

Hillary Rodham’s path to improving education in Arkansas began in 1974 when she moved to Fayetteville and became just the second female faculty member at the University of Arkansas Law School. Bill Clinton lost his bid for a U.S. House seat the same year.

After she married the following year, retaining her maiden name, Bill was elected attorney general of Arkansas, and the couple moved to Little Rock. Meanwhile, Hillary’s own career took off upon joining the high-powered Rose Law Firm, where she took on pro bono children’s rights cases.

In 1977, Hillary co-founded and drew up the articles of incorporation for the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families -- a group that for nearly four decades since has fought for expanded opportunities in early education, juvenile justice reform, increases in state funding for child health care and other major initiatives.

“She was a very forceful advocate to say the least,” recalled Jim Miles, who worked with her to create the group and develop its mission. “I think Arkansas Advocates is one of the nation’s premier child advocacy organization. They have tremendous peer respect.”

After Bill Clinton was sworn in as governor for the first time in 1979, he appointed his wife to be the chairwoman of Arkansas’ Rural Health Advisory Committee -- a group that worked to expand health care access within the state’s large rural population.

Around the same time, Hillary became a board member of the Arkansas Children’s Hospital, where she helped establish the state’s first neonatal nursery while she was pregnant with Chelsea. The facility has since expanded several times over.

Meanwhile, after reading about it during a trip to Florida, Hillary brought to Arkansas a program called Home Instruction for Parents for Preschool Youngsters, or HIPPY, which trains parents of at-risk children in early education methods.

It wasn’t until after Clinton lost re-election in 1980 and then won his 1982 comeback bid that the newly minted political wife (who now made it known that she would henceforth be known as “Hillary Rodham Clinton”) made what is widely regarded as her most significant and lasting contribution to public policy in Arkansas.

Shortly after he reassumed office in 1982, Bill Clinton named his wife as chair of the Arkansas Educational Standards Committee, an entity with the daunting task of reforming the state’s public education system, which was ranked at or near the very bottom of all 50 states in just about every measure.

To get a sense of how dire the situation had become, consider that a majority of Arkansas’ 365 school districts at the time offered no art or chemistry classes, and almost half had no foreign language program to speak of. And teacher training in some districts was fourth-rate.

Don Ernst -- who was a social studies teacher at Southside High School in Fort Smith, Arkansas, before joining Clinton’s education policy staff -- recalls walking into his school’s biology lab and seeing two dozen unopened microscopes in storage. When he asked the biology teacher why the instruments weren’t available to her class, she responded that she was afraid her students might break them.

Still, as Ernst recalls, school reform in Arkansas was not an easy sell.

“It was doing the right thing,” he said. “But we also had to figure out how to deal with the politics of an anti-tax state and a state that has never been particularly fond of intellectuals and education.”

Hillary spent months traveling the state to sell her proposals for reform -- which included boosting course offerings, reducing class sizes and implementing testing requirements for both students and teachers -- while soliciting ideas from parents and teachers.

In the end, the administration tied the package to an unpopular initiative to boost the state sales tax by 1 percentage point.

Though she faced heated pushback from the teachers’ union and a related group, Hillary largely won over lawmakers in the end.

Political operatives in the state still laugh about the thunderstruck reaction that Rep. Lloyd George, a colorful state representative with a syrupy drawl, had to her presentation: “I think we’ve elected the wrong Clinton!”

Though Bill Clinton received most of the credit nationally for the reform package that he signed into law, Skip Rutherford, who has served for the last decade as the dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, said it was Hillary who “took Arkansas to a completely different level educationally.”

“She was really saying, ‘Look, when our students graduate now, they’re going to be competing in a world economy,’” he said. “She was very visionary. She did it not for immediate gratification but for long-term success.”

In recent years, Arkansas' public school system has been ranked by education groups as high as fifth in the nation and as low as 45th, as relatively low achievement levels have struggled to keep up with the high standards that Clinton implemented.

But in spite of the continued challenges, education in Arkansas is no longer the national laughingstock that it was when a common lament among self-conscious policymakers around the capitol was, “Thank God for Mississippi.”

And for Clinton -- particularly in a general election scenario, in which she may face off against a Republican governor who will boast of his own executive leadership -- that is something to crow about.

Still, even if she does emphasize her Arkansas achievements more than she did during the 2008 campaigns, there appears to be little chance that she’ll be doing so within Arkansas’ borders.

The years of Democratic domination here have long since passed, as Arkansas has assumed an overwhelmingly Republican profile that is more in keeping with neighboring states like Oklahoma and Missouri than it is with the new South battlegrounds of North Carolina and Virginia.

It was Bill Clinton himself who offered a frank reality check for any Democrats who may have dreams of an Arkansas victory in 2016 dancing through their heads.

"I was governor a long time," he said last month during a question-and-answer session at his alma mater, Georgetown University. "The people of my native state were good enough to elect me five times. Based on recent events, I don't know if I could win again down there."

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