Statesman Staff Writer
Billy Pat Wright considers himself blessed. For eight years he served as State Representative in House District 159, something many only dream about. He will serve until the end of this month, but was not able to seek re-election due to term limits.
"For eight years people stood by me and supported me," says Wright. "It would take pages to list all the people I want to thank, but I thank all of them for their support."
Growing up in the cotton fields near Marmaduke, Ark., entering the political arena was not something Wright had considered during his career in business. He recalls that former Rep. Rob Mayer chose to run for the senate and several Republicans in the area were looking for someone to fill the House seat. Wright recalls that he was invited to speak at the Dexter Rotary Club, and afterward he was invited to a meeting in the office of Norman Harty. Several people were there discussing the vacancy.
Someone asked Wright if he would consider running.
"I didn't have any idea of getting into politics," says Wright about the suggestion to run for office.
He thought it over for about a month before making a decision to run for the House.
The first campaign in 2004 was a tough one. He faced serious opposition in the Republican primary and then again in the general election. He won a squeaker in 2004 when he defeated Democrat Boyce Wooley of Dexter by about 1,300 votes. Subsequent elections may not have been that close, but he notes that it didn't stop candidates from filing against him.
"I had an opponent in every election for all eight years that I served in the legislature," Wright reflects.
The first campaign was memorable. Many people helped including his wife, Linda, and his sister, Linda Garner.
"My wife was always my strongest supporter," he says. "My sister was also very involved."
His sister put that all together on a framed print that he proudly kept in his office as a reminder of his upbringing and his responsibility to the voters he represented. He will keep that memento as a proud reminder of his eight years as a state representative.
Wright chose to run for the state senate seat vacated by Mayer who was leaving due to term limits. Redistricting scrambled the districts, with three different scenarios presented before it was settled.
"The money didn't scare me off," says Wright about his decision to drop out of the race.
Wright says the reason for his decision was based on an objective look at the voter base. He noted that the final redistricting plan brought in Mississippi County which historically leans Democratic, and returned Butler County which previously had been moved into the 33rd Senatorial Distrit. Combined with Pemiscot, Dunklin and New Madrid Counties, a Republican candidate would be fortunate to stay close in those counties, he noted. In past elections, a Republican could hope that a large victory in Butler and Stoddard Counties would overcome the Democratic vote in the south.
Wright says he had spent a lot of time building a voter base in Butler County, south to the Arkansas line. Redistricting took the southwestern counties out of District 25 and brought in Carter and Shannon Counties. The announcement by Poplar Bluff businessman Doug Libla to enter the race meant that he was unlikely to carry Butler County.
"I just didn't have the votes," says Wright.
Wright served on many committees while at the Capitol. He was a member of the Appropriations Committee, and served on committees dealing with veterans, agriculture, utilities and Homeland Security. He was also chairman of an agriculture committee.
Wright is proud of many of his accomplishments.
He served eight years on the Veterans Committee, and discovered early on that disabled veterans were given no special credits when bidding on state contracts. He says that many other groups were getting those credits.
"My goodness," he says of his finding. "Disabled veterans of all people should be getting special credits."
He sponsored and passed legislation that a certain percent of the contracts should go to disabled veterans, and later extra points were given to this group bidding on state awarded contracts.
Another veteran issue he co-sponsored was the bill to recognize Vietnam veterans with a special medallion. He also worked to improve Veterans Homes and reduce the waiting time for those trying to gain entry.
He also supported Castle's Doctrine or a "Stand your ground" law in the state. The law gives homeowners and residents the right to protect their property without fear of "serious consequences" for protecting themselves.
Wright also co-sponsored Rice Bill 1840 and the New Missouri Beef Credit Program as part of his work in agriculture. He has worked with the Farm Bureau on issues, and sees a bright future for agriculture in the state because "we have good farm policy in Missouri."
Wright was also a proponent of Jessica's Law to provide stiffer penalties for those convicted of child molestation.
Another key issue Wright helped support dealt with public school teachers. A law was enacted that forced all people applying to be substitute teachers, includng retiring teachers, to be fingerprinted and have background checks before they could work as substitute. He said this led to a shortage of substitute teachers as many teachers didn't feel that it was fair. The state waived this requirement for teachers who returned as substitute teachers within a year of retiring. He adds that a safety net was built into the law that allowed superintendents to request these background checks on anyone applying as a substitute teacher, if needed.
Wright was born near Marmaduke, Ark. the son of Leonard and Leona Wright. He left Arkansas to live in Flint, Mich., in 1955. He worked at a grocery store chain and later in construction. He later started working for Western Electric Co., installing telephone equipment.
Wright moved to Dexter in 1959 afaer serving in the Army and National Guard to work for his uncle, Eltee White, in the insurance business. He then went to work for Southwestern Bell in 1968, and spent 39 years there until his retirement. While working for Southwestern Bell, he completed work toward his college degree, taking night classes utilizing the company tuition plan.
Wright was selling insurance when he traveled to Hayti in 1960 on business. It was there that he met Linda. The relationship grew and in 1961 they were married. The couple has three daughters, Elaine, Leah and Laura.
When he retired from the phone company, Wright stayed active in other businesses. Linda had a real estate license and was a broker. He received his real estate license in 1974. The couple bought American Realty and purchased a Century 21 franchise. Wright is still selling real estate with Trammell and Son Realty, and plans to spend more time there.
While selling real estate, he found property in Ripley County that was exactly what he was looking for. He already had a cabin on the Current River, but continued to look for property where he could raise cattle. In 1986 he bought 150 acres 15 miles west of Doniphan. The property had two creeks running through it and some prime river bottom land. It also had an old two-story home on it.
Wright now spends time on the Ripley County farm where he raises registered Charolais cattle and also has a herd of Angus cross-bred cattle. The property has lots of deer and turkey. He and his wife have been working to remodel the house.
Still, he does not plan to disappear from Dexter. He has been too involved in the community to retire.
"I intend to continue to work for good conservative family values," Wright says of his future. He will not even hint whether is future plans will be political or in the private sector.
It has been a long road from the cotton fields near Marmaduke, Ark., for Wright. Being elected a state representative was more than he ever dreamed.
"It's hard work, but it's rewarding if you remember your constituents," says Wright.