Arkansas House parliamentarian retiring after a decade advising speakers and members
Buddy Johnson, the retiring parliamentarian of the Arkansas House of Representatives, stands in the gallery overlooking the House chamber. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
The man who sits to the left of the Arkansas House Speaker rarely speaks.
From atop the Speaker’s rostrum, he whispers instructions and watches for members who wish to be recognized.
As former House Speaker Jeremy Gillam put it, he “keeps the train running on time and out of the ditches.”
After 11 years, House Parliamentarian Finos “Buddy” Johnson will retire at the end of the month.
As politics has grown ever more divisive, Johnson has remained seemingly universally liked and respected by members of the House.
“Buddy really has a passion for the institution, for how it functions, and he wanted to see it remain a good, strong, viable body,” said former House Speaker Davy Carter, who led the House from 2013-2014. “He took the politics out of it, and all 100 members would’ve said the same.”
A parliamentarian is a legislative body’s foremost expert on the rules and procedure that govern the function of that particular body, and as a recent high-profile lawsuit has demonstrated, parliamentary procedure is quite important.
“What they do is their business; how they do it is mine,” Johnson said.
House members describe Johnson’s knowledge of the House rules, legislative process and House history as encyclopedic.
House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said it’s rare that Johnson didn’t immediately know the answer to even the most arcane questions. Johnson even knew the rule book so well that he could turn to almost the exact page of a rule in question, Shepherd said.
“There’s only two times he didn’t tell me the answer right off the bat,” Shepherd said with a snap of his fingers. “In those cases, we did some digging and found the answer.”
From Ashdown to the Statehouse
Johnson speaks softly but confidently with an accent born of his native southwest Arkansas.
Strewn across his desk are the tools of the parliamentarian’s trade: “The Rules of the Arkansas House of Representatives,” “Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure” and Thomas Jefferson’s “A Manual of Parliamentary Practice.”
Raised in Ashdown, Johnson obtained his bachelor’s degree from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville and went to work as a reporter at the Benton Courier in 1980.
After nearly two years at the Saline County newspaper, Johnson was hired by United Press International to work as a reporter in its Little Rock bureau.
He eventually moved up to UPI’s State Capitol bureau, where he covered the Legislature and former Gov. Bill Clinton’s administration.
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After UPI’s 1985 bankruptcy, which resulted in the layoff of most of its Arkansas journalists, including Johnson, he went to work at the state House of Representatives as information director, writing speeches, news releases and other reports.
In 2011, he became the House’s coordinator of legislative services, serving as the administrative head of much of the House’s human resources and day-to-day operations.
Then, in 2012, former Speaker Robert Moore, Jr. appointed Johnson to succeed longtime parliamentarian Tim Massanelli. Carter was elected speaker shortly after.
“Tim had been there for decades and was a living legend,” Carter said. “Buddy had huge shoes to fill, but he did. He came in and I trusted him immensely. He had spent years studying, learning and knew the role, and we didn’t miss a beat.”
’Hard to replace’
Johnson worked at the House through the implementation of term limits, which made the parliamentarian’s job even more important because it meant an influx of new members and committee chairs who didn’t know the rules intimately.
He said one of his favorite things about the job has been conversations with members in his office about how to go about accomplishing something in the House of Representatives.
“We want the proceedings to unfold smoothly,” Johnson said. “We want the public to realize that they know what they’re doing and how to do it.”
The House functions much more formally than the Senate, largely due to having 65 more members. The rules exist to ensure order and efficiency, Johnson said.
Does he have a favorite rule or a favorite quirk of parliamentary procedure?
“It’s like children, you can’t really have a favorite,” Johnson quipped.
During his first term as parliamentarian, Johnson oversaw a special session held at the Old State House due to ongoing renovations at the State Capitol.
During the pandemic, he helped the chamber through a session at the Jack Stephens Center on the University of Arkansas at Little Rock campus.
He watched the partisan composition of the House and state government flip from Democrat to Republican. But that didn’t change much for Johnson, said Shepherd, whose first term in the House was in 2010 and who became speaker in 2018.
“It should be a compliment that I don’t know what his politics are on anything,” Shepherd said. “Not that it matters. It shouldn’t matter, but I’m saying that because it reflects the fact that he’s done the job and he’s been loyal to the House and the Rules of the House and the Constitution.”
Johnson also helped Shepherd navigate the unprecedented expulsion of a member during his first term as speaker. It was only the second expulsion in state history (the first occurred in 1837 after one member stabbed another to death on the House floor).
Rep. Fred Allen, a Little Rock Democrat, sometimes has presided over the House when Shepherd has been away. Johnson, he said, has always been dedicated, helpful and never partisan. He said he couldn’t remember a ruling Johnson made that had upset Democrats or Republicans.
“Guys like Buddy only come through every now and then,” Allen said. “Buddy is one of a kind.”
Like Shepherd, Gillam said Johnson’s counsel was always wise. The parliamentarian leaves a great mark on the House and on the state as a whole, but Gillam said his most treasured memories of Johnson came outside the House chamber.
Gillam remembered on his birthday in 2016 that he was unable to spend it at home with his family due to a slate of speakership obligations at the Capitol. During a break in the day, Johnson pulled him aside and took him across town to a movie theater to watch “Dunkirk.”
“It was special to me because he didn’t have to, but he knew how much I enjoyed going to the movies,” Gillam said.
As for Johnson’s replacement, Shepherd said there have been ongoing discussions, but he wasn’t ready to announce a successor.
Johnson, though, said the House will be in good hands.
“I’m honored to have worked up here for 30 years.”
Shepherd said Johnson never tried to impose his own will on the House, and he always respected that it was the members who made the decisions.
“You get the wrong person in the role of parliamentarian, they can kind of impose their will one way or the other, but he just does the job,” the speaker said. “He just lays it out there.”
The next time the House convenes will be strange for Shepherd and the many onlookers who have grown accustomed to seeing Johnson beside the speaker for the last decade.
“It’s hard for me to have to think of serving as speaker without the benefit of his help, guidance and advice,” Shepherd said.
“Buddy will be hard to replace.”
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