December 2019 Magazine Politics

Tim Griffin: Passions, Not Plans, Guide Political Path

Tim Griffin

by Tyler Hale /  Photography by Jamison Mosley

As Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin sits in his office in the Arkansas State Capitol, he takes stock of a career that has taken him from the small town of Magnolia to the nation’s capital and back to Arkansas.

 Looking back, Griffin says there has been no grand design to how his career has panned out so far. From his early days to college and law school, to staff positions with the Republican National Committee, to U.S. representative, to his current position as the state’s 20th lieutenant governor, Griffin has been guided not by traditional career imperatives but by long-standing passions.

“It’s not the traditional path where people run for local office and then stay in office. Maybe that just wasn’t my path. I did a bunch of different things that if you look at it, maybe don’t look like one part of a specific plan. I was just pursuing jobs and opportunities that I was interested in and that I enjoyed,” he says.

Born in North Carolina, Griffin was raised in Magnolia, a small town about 140 miles south of Little Rock. His family moved to Arkansas in the early 1980s to move away from North Carolina’s booming growth and back to a simpler life.

It was in Magnolia that Griffin found two of his great passions, which would shape much of his later career – history and the military. “I always loved history, which led to my interest in the way government works and policy issues, and the military,” he says.

Politics wasn’t an early passion – he was not involved in student government until college and then only in a minor role. Nor was his family political – unless you count his cousin, Sid McMath, the 34th governor of Arkansas who served from 1949-1953.

After graduating from Magnolia High School, Griffin went on to Hendrix College, originally planning to study business. It was during his undergraduate years that he began considering a career in law because, as he says, “Law was related to government; law was related to policy, and law was related to history…”

The shifting tides of world events played a major role in his decision to switch from business to law. Major events, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and Ronald Reagan’s presidency, convinced Griffin that the realm of law and policy was one where he could make an impact. Travels in eastern Europe and a stint at Oxford University further broadened his perspective and increased his desire to get involved in policy making.

He went on to attend law school at Tulane University School of Law, but an internship in Washington, D.C., with Sen. Dale Bumpers – “At that point, we didn’t have any Republican senators,” he jokes – helped Griffin figure out that he was not going to be the type of person who sits in an office and pushes papers. “I’m not a sit-in-one-place kind of guy,” Griffin says.

Interning in the U.S. Senate gave Griffin an up-close view of the government in action – the cogs and mechanisms that drive the daily functioning of the great legislative machine. The internship was a “wake-up call” for him – this was the place where he could put his skills and interests to work.

“I got to physically be in the Senate and be a part of that institution, that process and get to spend time watching government, studying it, learning about it, figuring it out,” he says.

After graduating from law school in 1994, Griffin worked in several governmental positions in the run-up to the 2000 election cycle. His goal during this time was to work for Republican campaigns and “be a part of that enterprise.” Ultimately, he was named deputy research director for the Republican National Committee.

“Even though that was at the Republican National Committee and not on a specific campaign, it was less about what row I was going to sit on at the concert and [more about] just to let me in the concert,” Griffin says. “I didn’t really care if I was in a box seat at the concert, front row or the back. I just want to be in the concert. And, and so once I was in the concert, I was confident that I would work hard, and I would find other opportunities.

“I tell people all the time, ‘whatever disadvantages you have in terms of your money or background or education, hard work has an amazing way of just crushing barriers and obstacles,’ right?”

Those opportunities started rolling in after the 2000 election for Griffin. He took a position as a special assistant to Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff and was called back to serve as the research director and deputy communications director for President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign.

Griffin was present for one of the most dramatic moments in the last 20 years’ political history – the 2000 Florida recount. In his capacity as an RNC official, he served as an adviser for the recount, which ultimately gave Bush the electoral votes to win the 2000 election.

The Florida recount wasn’t just momentous to him because of the end result. For Griffin, it was a moment that brought together the campaign supporters in a heightened environment to make history.

“I remember Thanksgiving of 2000, we were in Florida at a hotel and Fort Lauderdale…vice-president-to-be Cheney was in the hospital. He had had a heart attack, and they served us all Thanksgiving dinner in Florida at that hotel – hundreds of the Bush people with the campaign,” he says. “Wayne Newton was a big Bush supporter, and he was there. So, he got up and sang ‘Danke Schoen.’ It was just really surreal memories like that.”

Griffin put another important notch on his belt after the election – snagging a White House job as the Special Assistant to the President and Deputy Director in the Office of Political Affairs. In this role, Griffin oversaw appointments for the Bush administration and ensured that the appointments reflected the values of the president. His time in the White House was limited, though, by his mobilization in the U.S. Army.

Getting mobilized was closer to a “normal job” than serving in the White House, Griffin jokes. The pressures of working in the White House are intense, regularly requiring long hours as a staff member.  “Those six months in the White House, though, were equivalent to working two years in a normal job,” he says.

What’s his take on former President Bush? “Extremely bright. Don’t let anybody tell you differently. Very fast, very quick minded and extremely bright,” Griffin says. “He’s just a real force of nature. It’s natural. I mean, you can just see it when you meet him.”

Griffin came back to the forefront of public consciousness in 2009 when he decided to put his hat in the ring for an open congressional seat. Vic Snyder, a 14-year Democrat incumbent in Arkansas’ second congressional district, stepped down, triggering a race for his replacement.

The decision to run prompted some soul-searching for Griffin. Even though he was at this point a seasoned political operative, Griffin had never put his own name on the ballot. Now 41 years old, he was looking to jump into the fray himself.

“And so, I think when you’re making decisions about what you want to do in life, you rely on your faith and prayer for guidance,” he says. “Do I want to or should I pursue this, should I pursue that? And one example where I think my faith led me to a very clear, crystal clear decision was whether to ever get into elective politics at all. It’s not for everybody. And I had been involved as a staff person for years.”

In the end, he decided to run, and during the 2010 election, Griffin defeated his Democratic Party challenger, Joyce Elliot, capturing more than 57 percent of the vote to her 38 percent.

Despite the wide margin, Griffin insists that the race was not an open-and-shut case. “There was a lot of uncertainty there,” he says. “It wasn’t like I got in and there was an open seat, or like I got in and it was a Republican slam dunk. It was quite the opposite.”

Winning this previously Democrat-controlled seat was evidence, Griffin says, of the party’s slackening grip on the state’s politics and the rise of the Republican Party in Arkansas. He attributes this shift to the difficulty of keeping a diverse coalition of beliefs and viewpoints together and Arkansans embracing the Republican Party’s conservative platform.

“Arkansas was always center, right? Always a conservative state. We had one party, and no matter what your views were, you were grouped under one party,” he says. “If you are a liberal, you were a Democrat. If you are conservative, you were a Democrat. If you are a moderate, you were a Democrat. Everybody was a Democrat. So, that’s a hard coalition to keep together.

“Once people were loosed from that one-party structure and they were able to just pick based on their personal views, they all migrated to the party with the conservative platform. And that’s where we are today.”

Griffin served two terms in Congress, became Assistant Whip for the Majority Party, and was a member on the powerful House Committee on Ways and Means, which he calls a “real honor.” Serving on the Ways and Means Committee also allowed him to focus solely on that committee instead of serving on multiple committees, which prevented him from honing in on policy issues.

“No sane person could be an expert on four committees in Congress. It’s just too much. So, what you end up doing is getting a little bit from here, a little bit from here, and you’re never able to truly dig down,” Griffin says. “I remember running down the halls in my suit from committee meeting to committee meeting because I was in a hearing in one, and I had to run around the corner to judiciary to get my vote in and run back.”

After two terms, Griffin announced that he would not run again for his Congressional seat. His children were getting older at that point and noticing that he was not spending as much time in Arkansas. There were opportunities waiting for him in Washington, he knew, but Griffin decided to pack his bags and return home to Arkansas.

“It became crystal clear to me that despite the agony over the decision, I needed to be back in Arkansas,” he says. “But when I said I’m not going to run for another term, people thought I had a grand plan; I didn’t have a grand plan. It looked slow and messy at the time. It’s decision to decision.”

An opportunity struck when former Lt. Gov. Mark Darr resigned in 2014, opening up the office for election. Griffin mounted a successful campaign to be Arkansas’ lieutenant governor, winning 57 percent of the vote.

One of Griffin’s passions as lieutenant governor has been community service. As an elected official and a member of the armed forces (Griffin currently is a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve), he is no stranger to public service. He has championed prison anti-recidivism efforts, along with his wife, Elizabeth.

For their efforts, the nonprofit Exodus.Life awarded the couple its 2019 “Out for Life” Award in October 2019 for its leadership. According to Exodus.Life Executive Director Paul Stevens, the Griffins received the third-annual award because of their extensive volunteer work both in anti-recidivism and foster care.

What lies ahead for Tim Griffin? When asked, he gives a sly smile and a general answer that he is “thinking about the future a lot.” After all, Gov. Asa Hutchinson will be terming out, opening the governor’s office in the 2022 election.

Griffin is the first individual to make headlines as a locked-in candidate for the race, but he likely won’t be the last. In a move that heightened his profile, Griffin appeared in a 30-second TV spot earlier this fall for the nonprofit group Arkansas Competes, in which he advocates for lower taxes and STEM education. Other potential GOP gubernatorial candidates in 2022 include Sarah Huckabee Sanders, former White House press secretary, Fox News contributor and daughter of former Gov. Mike Huckabee; Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, and State Sen. Jim Hendren, nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson

While he says that he is planning to run, Griffin has not made a formal announcement yet. Those announcements are planned for later as the election moves closer. But if history is any indicator, don’t stand between Griffin and an opportunity – he’s got a winning record. 

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