He was called “Honest Joe” by supporters. In a flamboyant age of colorful and controversial Arkansas politicians, Joe Purcell stood out by not standing out. Affable, sometimes awkward, and always principled, Purcell served ably as attorney general, lieutenant governor, and as acting governor in a distinguished career.
Joe Edward Purcell was born in the South Arkansas community of Warren in July 1923. Purcell’s parents divorced while he was still young. His father moved away, and his mother worked to support the three children. His paternal grandfather, a popular attorney in Warren, stayed closed to him and inspired him to later become a lawyer himself. Purcell dropped out of high school in his junior year and enlisted in the army.
When he left the army after World War II, he was determined to finish his education. He received an associate’s degree from Little Rock Junior College and earned a law degree from the University of Arkansas Law School in 1952.
He settled in Benton and set up a modest law practice. Purcell was elected city attorney in 1955 and was elected as municipal judge in 1958. In 1966, he ran for attorney general against incumbent Bruce Bennett of El Dorado. Bennett had been an outspoken segregationist, attacking civil rights groups and integration. The segregationist stances by Gov. Orval Faubus and Bennett had brought the state unwelcome attention for some time. Purcell, with his enthusiastic support from Saline County, was a palatable alternative for voters and won the primary.
After his election as attorney general that fall, Purcell worked with legislators to reform election laws to make the ballot easier to access and to simultaneously make ballot fraud more difficult. He also opened a new consumer protection division, a popular move among Arkansans. In 1969, he tackled a major banking scandal when his office sued Arkansas Loan and Thrift Corporation for allegedly defrauding customers. The scandal grew worse when Purcell’s predecessor, Bruce Bennett, was also indicted for fraud. Bennett’s collapsing health, however, left him unable to face trial before his death in 1979.
Voters appreciated Purcell’s respectful approach, and announced a run for governor. He entered a crowded field in the 1970 Democratic Primary. Eight candidates ultimately ran, including House Speaker Hayes McClerkin of Texarkana and Charleston attorney Dale Bumpers, a man largely unknown outside his hometown at that point. Former Gov. Faubus was determined to make a political comeback and quickly built an overwhelming lead in the primary. Initially, many political observers across the state saw Purcell as the man to beat. But Faubus had spent years cultivating political relationships across the state and building a powerful campaign machine. He turned the primary into a contest of who would face Faubus in the runoff.
Purcell campaigned across the state, but observers noted the lack of enthusiasm voters were showing toward him. His somewhat stiff style contrasted sharply with the energy and good humor of Bumpers, who rose steadily in the polls. Though Purcell ran a competent and honest campaign, he finished third, just 4,000 votes separating him and Bumpers. He was shut out of the runoff, which was ultimately won by Bumpers.
In spite of being opponents in 1970, Bumpers respected Purcell and appointed him chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party. In 1974, Purcell was elected lieutenant governor and performed ably in the position. In 1976, Gov. David Pryor appointed him to head the state’s celebrations of the nation’s bicentennial. Purcell was re-elected with ease in 1976 and 1978. On January 3, 1979, he became acting governor when Gov. Pryor resigned to take the U. S. Senate seat he had won the previous November. For six days, Purcell served quietly as acting governor before Bill Clinton was sworn in for his first term. Purcell resumed his duties as lieutenant governor but declined to run for a fourth term in 1980.
Though his health was declining by this point, Purcell ran for governor once again in 1982. He faced former Congressman Jim Guy Tucker in his bid for higher office and Clinton in his quest to reclaim the governor’s mansion in the Democratic Primary. Purcell ran a typically quiet campaign, sticking to the issues and refusing to attack his opponents in contrast to the bitter fighting between Tucker and Clinton. Purcell slipped into the runoff against Clinton. Though some polls initially had Purcell leading in the runoff, the charismatic and ambitious Clinton outspent and out-organized Purcell, rallying his supporters to the voting booth. Purcell came up short with only 46% of the vote, or 36,000 votes shy of the nomination.
Purcell quietly returned to his law practice in Benton. He largely stayed out of the political limelight, and his health conditions worsened. He died in March 1987 at age 63, respected for a career of dignified public service.