Magazine November 2019 Politics

No Looking Back: Dustin McDaniel

No Looking Back

by Dustin Jayroe

Former Political Star Dustin McDaniel Excelling in Private Practice 

The largest casualty, of course, was the state Democratic Party, which itself dominated local and state politics for more than 100 years and with rare exceptions accounted for the state’s entire congressional delegation. But it could be argued that Dustin McDaniel represents the biggest individual political casualty. McDaniel, elected the state’s attorney general in 2006, was the next presumed leader of the party and even the state, the heir to Gov. Mike Beebe, the popular two-term Democrat who left office in 2015. But the crimson tide washed those presumptions away. 

McDaniel’s political career officially began in 2005 after he was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives representing Jonesboro. He defeated the Republican nominee by a 6-point margin in the same year that President George W. Bush carried his home district by seven points. 

After just six months in office, McDaniel formally announced his candidacy for attorney general. He secured the top position in the Democratic primary amongst a three-horse field and pulled out a narrow win against Paul Suskie in a run-off. In 2006, status as the Democratic nominee still amounted to tantamount election in November, and McDaniel defeated GOP and Green Party candidates by more than 21 points. 

At the age of 34, McDaniel became the youngest attorney general in the U.S.  

In 2010, a year when Republicans were flipping offices left-to-right all over the country, McDaniel ran up the score in his bid for a second term. State Republicans didn’t even field a candidate. In the general election, he faced Green Party candidate Rebekah Kennedy for a second time and amassed almost 73 percent of the statewide vote. 

By 2012, McDaniel was all but a lock to be the Democratic nominee for governor in 2014. He filed preliminary paperwork to begin fundraising for his potential campaign, and in just six months had raised $1.5 million. But, the westward winds had already arrived. The Republican Party’s takeover of Arkansas had commenced. Early polls showed Republican Asa Hutchinson running away with the race, and after admitting to a minor personal scandal, McDaniel withdrew. 

But, given his rise to political fame at such a young age, McDaniel remains a vigorous 47 — well within his prime to recapture the popularity he once possessed in Arkansas politics. Many Arkansans still recognize him. Could he be eyeing a comeback, potentially delivering the Democratic Party back to past prominence? 

According to McDaniel, probably not. 

“I do not have any anticipation of running for office, probably ever again,” McDaniel says. “Arkansas has gone from being a solidly blue state to being a solidly red state, and it’s going to be red for a while, it looks like. But I have found a way in my professional life to work on the things I cared about when I was in public life. 

“A lot of politicians don’t know when they’re going to end their public service, but with me not running for any other office and the constitutional term limit, I knew exactly when I was going to become unemployed; I knew the date and the hour … I also knew that I would be the youngest former attorney general in the United States. I often joke that attorneys general either go on to higher office or they get indicted, but very few just find themselves out in the world.”

But that is exactly where McDaniel found himself. “I was going to be 42 years old and looking to decide what the next phase of my life was going to be.”

Fortunately for McDaniel, he used his experience as a successful private-practice lawyer and attorney general to carve out a new, successful and rewarding professional career. 

And his professional life is booming. McDaniel is a partner at a law firm of his own creation, McDaniel, Richardson & Calhoun, but he does not keep his finger far from the proverbial pulse of his past life. His office is in the AFMC building in downtown Little Rock, facing east, directly overlooking his old stomping grounds — the Arkansas State Capitol. 

Bart Calhoun, Dustin McDaniel and Scott Richardson

“It’s been a fantastic and exciting ride, so far,” McDaniel says behind a grin. “I’ve been very lucky and grateful for my transition out of public life back into private life. 

“My partners, Scott Richardson and Bart Calhoun, came with me from the attorney general’s office and we had everything that you could possibly need for a very successful law firm, except for clients or desks or a telephone or fax, when kicking this off. We had to build it from scratch from the day we left office.”

Through McDaniel’s leadership, the firm already has established itself as a significant player in not only the state of Arkansas, but the entire country. Among the broad range of issues litigated by the firm are big tech antitrust, tobacco, medical marijuana and casino licensing. 

Throughout 2017, one of McDaniel’s primary focuses was medical marijuana in Arkansas. Through Natural State Wellness Enterprises, he and his partners and investors were able to secure one of only five cultivation licenses issued and one of the 32 dispensary licenses in the state. 

“And then by 2018, I had shifted my focus from the constitutional amendment that created medical marijuana to the constitutional amendment that created four casino licenses,” McDaniel says. “We helped Nate Steel and his firm and the Quapaw Nation write the constitutional amendment, then we supported the ballot-question committee in the campaign to pass the constitutional amendment and the litigation to keep it on the ballot.”

After taking just a brief breath to celebrate the passing of that constitutional amendment last year, it was back to work on what has become a very complicated casino situation, especially in Pope County. 

All this on top of an announcement of significant expansion. Earlier this year, McDaniel’s firm announced a three-party merger, incorporating law firms Wolff &Ward and Benca & Johnston into McDaniel, Richardson & Calhoun, becoming McDaniel Wolff & Benca. The seven partners not only will carry a new name but will also have a new face — a brand new, $1.8 million office building in downtown Little Rock, set to be move-in ready later this year and open for official practice at the start of 2020.

“We’re building in the innermost ring of the capital zoning commission for the first new building constructed from the ground up in that area in a very long time,” McDaniel says proudly. “I wouldn’t speculate specifically, but I’m guessing 30 years or more.”

Bobbi and Dustin McDaniel. Photo by Sara Reeves

The neoclassical style architecture of the new structure is designed to complement the aesthetics of the district and the state capitol itself. McDaniel worked with the Arkansas Capitol Zoning Commission every step of the way to ensure its appropriateness in this historic area of Little Rock. 

“So, in addition to a national attorney-general practice, state public-policy practice, civil litigation, education law — kind of the meat and potatoes of our law firm — we’ll be adding really complex business representation, real estate and tax work from Wolff & Ward. And I think Patrick Benca is the most successful, sophisticated and distinguished criminal defense lawyer of our generation … It’s going to be an even more diverse and exciting array of services that we’ll be able to offer individuals and business clients both here in Arkansas and around the U.S.”

McDaniel jokes, “It’s been a roller coaster of a year,” before humbly proclaiming the unsung hero to his firm’s success. A name not on the marquee, but one everyone on the inside knows the importance of — his wife, Bobbi. 

Bobbi and Dustin McDaniel have “grounds” for optimism for the success of Dinner on the Grounds, a fundraiser for Our House. Photo by John Sykes Jr.

“[My wife] has been a huge part of the success of my firm and me personally throughout the 10 years that we’ve been married, and this year is no exception.” 

The pair co-chaired Serving Up Solutions for the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance this past year, one of their many philanthropic endeavors. Bobbi was so moved and empowered by the work that she has since gone on to work for the organization, traveling the state and helping people in food pantries all over Arkansas. 

“She’s the straw that stirs the drink in a lot of things and that’s absolutely true both in our family and in my business,” McDaniel says. 

Holding the same passions and values as he did while in public service, McDaniel now is making his mark on the future through private litigation and is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

“I’m really very happy with the way that my private life and public life have intersected,” McDaniel says. “You’re not ever going to be as effective in impacting public policy as you would be while in office, but [I am] more flexible to address all kinds of different things now.” 

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