Little Rock gets bigger as power seekers pile in Ark. town enjoys cash, culture clash

November 08, 1992|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Staff Writer

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Welcome to the land of fried okra an faxes.

As the presidential transition moves into high gear, this quiet, southern town on the Arkansas River is being cabled, wired, secured and Washington-ized as it becomes, at least for the next couple of months, the nation's new center of power.

Everyone from Los Angeles lawyers to Japanese TV crews is mixing with the locals these days -- buying up their newspapers, jamming their streets, pumping up their economy and, in general, making for a culture clash that's juicier than the 4-pound bone, not recommended for rookies, at Doe's Eat Place.

Turn around, and there is the new transition director and former diplomat, Warren Christopher, in his trench coat and with briefcase, in line at a homey spot called "Your Mama's Good Food," so anti-hip with its vinyl tablecloths and $3.99 catfish specials it would be positively retro-chic in Washington. One table over, a Washington reporter pulls a cellular phone out of her pocketbook to call her home office -- her beeper has just gone off, of course.

Right next door at Kinko's, the two high-speed copying machines have been operating 24 hours a day, cranking out everything from resumes to Clinton souvenir electoral maps with a handwritten "Thanks for a great win -- Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton" at the bottom.

Across the street at Clinton headquarters, CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer is stopped by a woman who wants his autograph.

"And all the discs! What do you call those things?" says Little Rock schoolteacher Mary Butts, marveling at the TV satellite dishes that have been parked around town.

In a way, the folks here are used to this detour onto the fast track because the Clinton headquarters remained in Little Rock during the campaign. But now, with the transition process based here, even more out-of-towners and VIPs have descended upon the place including Secret Service, network anchors and those who'll be talking policy and possible employment with the president-elect.

"Most families make their most important decisions around the kitchen table," says chief Clinton strategist Paul Begala, defending the decision to keep the main transition headquarters in Arkansas, as he polishes off his Salisbury steak and purple hull peas at Your Mama's.

The influx of journalists and politicos has been a major boon to business in this city of 176,000 -- as well as a source of pride. "This is the best year this hotel has ever had," says Patrice McClung, front office supervisor of The Capital, one of the main hotels in downtown Little Rock. The hotel is booked through Jan. 20.

It's also becoming the most unusual year. Lately, Secret Service agents have trained the desk clerks in dealing with bomb threats. "What's also kind of strange for us is when you have VIPs here who are so VIP they don't even tell you when they're going to check out," says Ms. McClung. "They just don't $H communicate with you at all."

At Doe's, a campaign and journalists' hangout where the choices are steak or a bigger steak, TV news crews have virtually taken over on certain nights. "One reporter set up lights all over the place -- you had to squint to eat -- and was doing sound-bites all over the restaurant," said manager Deborah Wadley.

But those are minor inconveniences compared to the revenue, prestige and excitement such outsiders are bringing to town. "They're not even interested in prices on anything. I just tell them what we've got," says Doe's waiter David Laser. "They're not chintzy at all. Of course, in Washington and New York, this is a cheap meal."

But this is Little Rock, where even a parking ticket is a bargain at $5 -- and where the real action is about to begin.

This weekend, staffers finished closing down the campaign headquarters in the old Arkansas Gazette building as the fourth and fifth floors of an office building down the street, the new transition hub, was being outfitted with alarm systems, cables, phone lines and furniture.

"There will be a lot stricter security here," says security officer Connie Elliott. "You won't be able to get off the elevator without going through me or the Secret Service."

But, like a break in a storm, a number of campaign officials left town this weekend if only for two days, and the streets of Little Rock were unusually still. Even President-elect Clinton took the weekend off, for the most part staying at home at the governor's mansion, which is now surrounded by roadblocks and security guards.

One of the few top-level advisers who ventured into the campaign headquarters yesterday was the campaign chief of staff, Eli Segal, passed over for the top transition spot last week. Asked what kind of role he might play in the transition, he shrugged and then said, "I'm getting out of campaign mode. I'm working on wind-down."

But scores of staff members at all levels -- and from all parts of the country -- are working on job hunting and are pouring into Little Rock to make themselves known.

"I'm making myself available to help in the transition efforts," says Charles Dawes, a Clinton volunteer from Newark, Ohio, who checked himself into a Red Roof Inn here Thursday just to be in the right place at what he hopes will be the right time. "I'm hoping to get a job with the administration. I know lots of people are."

One campaign volunteer who answers phones at the Clinton headquarters said she's been "swamped" with callers wanting to know where to send a resume or how to land a job.

"Some people think they can call up here and get a Cabinet post," says Millie Turnbow. "One man called and said, 'I worked in the campaign, and I think I would be a good secretary of labor.' He was serious. I just took the message and sent it on up."

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