Mark Kinion is the very definition of a hometown boy. Kinion grew up in Prairie Grove, and a conversation about his history in the Washington County area will inevitably swing in and out of old stories about Northwest Arkansas -- stories that are peppered with the names of some of the area's favorite sons and daughters, like Shirley and Sarge West ("I want to name the fountain down in Walker Park after them," Kinion says.), John Paul Hammerschmidt ("He imparted so much wisdom on bipartisanship.") and Betty Leighton ("She looked at me and said, 'Leave the board room in the board room.'").
In fact, a fun party game might be, "Find one person in Northwest Arkansas Mark Kinion does not know." But good luck trying to win it.
Through Others’ Eyes
“He and I have gone through a lot of things together — we’ve seen the civil rights ordinance and when we preserved Kessler Mountain — some real, landmark, cutting-edge progressive things we’ve done, and Mark has always been strong and present on that.” — Mayor Lioned Jordan
“His serving as vice mayor has proved once again how completely professional he is. He never knows when he mayor might have to leave and he will have to take over and he seems perfectly competent in that role. We’re lucky to have him, and I’m glad that he wants to continue to be invested in our community.” — Ward 1 Alderman Adella Gray
“I think one of his strengths is that he has an incredible attention to detail. If he doesn’t know the answer, he’ll spend hours researching it, because it’s fun for him.” — Evelyn Rios-Stafford
“He’s always looking at the big picture. He’s always looking at the long game, looking far ahead, for what’s best, not necessarily what’s popular. He will do things that might get push back in the short term, but if you look at thosee decisions now, I think everyone would agree that he made the right decisions.” — Bob Stafford
"I helped him with his run for county judge, and we went to parts of this county that I didn't even know existed," says Kinion's longtime friend Candy Clark. "We're out in the middle of nowhere, and we went into this little grocery store where all the people hang out, and he knows half of the people in there. His granddaddy did this or that with their daddy. It was amazing. He's sixth generation in this county."
In November, Kinion won his third term for a seat on the Fayetteville City Council by an overwhelming margin -- 71 percent of Ward 2 voters pulled the lever for him.
"'Don't you just love this city?'" he asks with a grin, quoting Fayetteville's Mayor Lioneld Jordan's oft-repeated phrase. "I intentionally moved back here. I intentionally stayed here. I have had challenges in my career where I had to evaluate, 'Do I want to move, because my career is important, or do I want to live in a place that I consider home and that I love?'"
Though Kinion has decisively won three city council races in a row now, he's no stranger to campaign losses. He lost in his first city council election in 2008 to Matthew Petty, and, earlier this year, he lost his bid for the District 86 seat in the Arkansas House of Representatives. Though he is sanguine about most of his defeats, there is one that stands out as the one that got away.
"[Previous Washington County Judge] Marilyn [Edwards] gave me access to every office, and I went and audited and sat in every office," he says of his bid for the Washington County judge position in 2016. "There's so much I could have done, and wanted to do, and none of it happened. That was the hardest, because I saw the potential -- the efficiencies I could have brought in. That is a corporate leadership position, period. And that's how it needs to be looked at."
Kinion's regret is rooted in the fact that he thinks his particular background -- which includes a distinguished career in the corporate sector -- would have given him the tools to do the job well. This dovetails nicely with his answer to the standard question asked of politicians about why he runs in the first place.
"I've never run for office just for the office," he says. "I've always run for office because there was something that I felt like needed an engine."
"When he ran for county judge, there had been a lot of problems in the county, and I think it was truly that he saw a problem and wanted to help solve that problem, and make a difference," says Evelyn Rios-Stafford, who was on the communications team for Kinion's run for District 86.
Prairie Grove was a town with a population of just under 1,000 in the mid-1950s when Kinion was born there to Aubrey and Lois Kinion. His childhood memories are distinctly Norman Rockwell-ish in nature. His family home was just off Buchanan Street, which ran straight through the middle of town and butted up to Prairie Grove's Mock Park.
"We had an oasis of adventure and fun at our back door," he remembers. "And then you could get on your bicycle or walk one block and there was this 'Mayberry, RFD' town. Everyone looked out for you. Everyone knew you."
Kinion was a gregarious child, so when the family moved out of town to a farm when he was in third grade, the isolation was hard on him.
"We moved five miles west on a dirt road -- where it was totally dark, and we were isolated -- and it was very tough," he says. "I don't ever remember having money in my pockets, but we always had clean clothes, and we were expected to look right, act right." The Kinion children were also expected to help out others in need in the community. "Sometimes it would frustrate me, because there were other farmers in the area that didn't have kids, or they were older, and I remember my dad coming down and saying, 'We're going down and hauling hay for Bob Ray today; it's going to rain.' I would be kind of [mad], because it's like, 'Man, we just hauled hay for three days, and now we're going out and hauling his hay?' But, see, that was the kind of community we had -- everyone was helping out. My mom had a pressure cooker and canned from the beginning of the garden to the end. Not just for us, but for anyone that needed it. So we had this sense of community and sense of sharing and sense of taking care of the underdog."
Kinion's parents always stressed the importance of education to their children. In fact, his mother started the first preschool in Prairie Grove, before it was offered through the school system. He was a good student, so good that many of his old high school teachers still keep up with him on Facebook.
His first introduction to public service might have been watching the young Americorps Vista volunteers bringing arts education into the community.
"They were accessible, and they really brought in hope and opportunity," he says. "I remember them so clearly. It broadens your horizon of what you know."
Kinion showed an early talent for music, and his parents found the money in their tight budget to pay for piano lessons when Kinion was in the second grade. Those lessons, and community concerts on the University of Arkansas campus, broadened his world a bit more.
"I don't know what would have happened if I had not had those opportunities," he says."They certainly opened up possibilities, and I think that's why I have so much hope. I want to always be there to encourage people. I want people to be inspired to do what they need to do.
Kinion's father also led his Boy Scout troop, and Kinion was so diligent in its activities that he reached the status of Eagle Scout -- the first in Prairie Grove -- almost by accident. The culmination of this award came when Kinion completed a community project that was the perfect expression of what his parents had taught him about helping those in need: He arranged for Prairie Grove churches to work cooperatively to provide Christmas food to area families experiencing food insecurity. The churches had all been operating this type of effort on their own, but the young Kinion thought that more people could be served, and more efficiently, through a cooperative effort.
"We would send out postcards," says Kinion. "I remember typing them on a manual typewriter at our home, to say, 'We're going to deliver these to you,' a short, very positive message. I would load up the meals and go out on country roads to deliver them. There was no shame, no embarrassment. The churches knew who to help."
However, Kinion's status as an over-achiever put a target on his back for some of his fellow students. He took every chance he could get to see the world outside of Prairie Grove, such as traveling for band competitions or to other states as a science fair finalist. Years later, he says, he found out that other kids thought he was "snotty" when, in reality, he was just busy.
Bullied no more
Sometimes, the words lobbed at him were far more cruel than "snob."
"I was bullied," he says bluntly, careful to point out that it was just a few kids, and the faculty at his school were always protective of him when they saw it happening. Likewise, his family was always supportive.
"I'm not going to lie about it. For being effeminate and for being a sissy. But I never gave the bullies any credence. And a lot of that is my grandmother, because she would say, 'That doesn't matter.' But I'm not going to lie to you, my feelings would get hurt, and I would cry. I remember the first time I was called 'faggot'. It was outside of the high school, by someone that was maybe two years younger than I was. And it had never crossed my mind. I lived in a state of denial about being gay. I heard at church that it was a sin, and that I'd find the right woman, and it would all work out."
"He doesn't want other people to be bullied like he was, so when he worked on the [Fayetteville] Civil Rights Ordinance, it revolved around that," says Bob Stafford, a member of Kinion's communication team for his run for the District 86 seat. "He knows what it's like to be picked on and bullied, so he fights for others who might be experiencing the same thing."
Kinion certainly did not let the bullying slow him down. A science teacher had helped him get a job at a food sciences lab at the University of Arkansas when he was a high school junior, and he juggled that job with one at the Cardinal Drive-In in Farmington, beginning to drive himself to work on backroads when he was just 14.
"I never got in trouble," he says. "I mean, I just didn't have the time to get in trouble."
By the time he graduated from high school, it was a given that he would go on to college. He lived at home for the first semester but eventually moved into a ramshackle house at 404 S. College Ave., which he says he adored.
"He didn't like [the house] so much at the time," says Clark tartly. "It was horrible, and his landlord would know nothing. I would not have been surprised to see woodland animals scattered about the house."
"To me, it was heaven on earth," says Kinion. "My dad had worked construction. My grandfather had worked construction. When I moved into that house, there was no heat, there was no hot water heater, there were no kitchen appliances, no refrigerator and stove. My dad -- who was up for an adventure of any type --went to every secondhand store around and ended up with a gas stove where you had to light it to make it work; an old refrigerator; [and] a big heating stove to put in the living room that my mom was sure was going to blow the place up."
It was at the University of Arkansas that Kinion felt the first stirrings of political ambition. He was first elected an Associated Student Government senator, then the treasurer of the organization and, finally, ASG president.
"I didn't know, thank goodness, but supposedly it was impossible for me to win," he says of his first successful effort at building a coalition behind him. "I had never been in a fraternity or lived in a housing unit on campus. But I had friends that were in fraternities. I had friends that lived in [the] Yokum and Holcombe [dormitories]. I went to the Baptist Student Union, so I had the Baptists behind me. I was really active in the Off-Campus Student Association."
"He ran a good campaign," remembers Clark. "He got the support of a lot of the fraternity and sorority types. He worked his a** off. That was a breakthrough, his election."
Kinion's experiences in college politics culminated in a coveted Lyndon Baines Johnson Internship, which afforded him the experience of working in U.S. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt's office, where he was hired as a staff member after his internship had ended. He had returned to Arkansas to start a graduate program when he was hired by a pharmaceutical company; he ultimately retired as a senior executive account manager after over 20 years in the sector.
"I traveled to all 75 counties in Arkansas when I first started my career," he says. "And I loved it. I had never been to Southeast Arkansas. I couldn't believe that there were still segregated doctors' offices. The offices weren't [officially] segregated, but they were -- they had different seating areas. I will admit that I always did this little protest. I always went and sat on the 'black side'. The nurse would say, 'Mr. Kinion, you might be more comfortable over here,' and I would say, 'Oh no, I'm fine.'"
So much still to do
Eventually, Kinion felt the call to move back to Northwest Arkansas. His corporate experience and political organizing with the Young Democrats in Little Rock made him attractive as a nonprofit board member, and he would eventually serve on a number of boards, including the Humane Society of the Ozarks, Terra Studios, Planned Parenthood and the Fayetteville Housing Authority. He also co-founded and served on the board of Partners for Better Housing and was president of the Fayetteville Council of Neighborhoods.
"He never boasts or brags, so most people don't know this incredibly long list of accomplishments, and the long list of work he's put in to making this a good place to live, and to helping various causes," says Rios-Stafford.
"When we first started working [as his communications team] we said, 'Tell us everything about you,' but, every day, we would learn something new that he had done or accomplished, just out of casual conversation. We started to joke that he had been president of the maternity ward when he was born," adds Rios- Stafford.
During his eight years on the Fayetteville City Council, Kinion has earned a reputation of being a thoughtful policy wonk who studies all sides of an issue prior to making a decision.
"The main thing that has impressed me the most about him is that there's hardly any subject that comes up on the Council that he hasn't had some kind of personal experience with," says Adella Gray, alderman for Ward 1. "He served on the housing board, therefore, when we were going through the Willow Heights issue, he was personally knowledgeable. His experience on the Council of Neighborhoods has made him have such a passion for neighborhoods. And then, of course, from his time on the Sewer and Water Committee, he's just amazingly knowledgeable about everything connected with that. Every time we start to talk about something, he immediately knows the implications for the city."
"I love good research," says Kinion. "I'd rather do three hours of looking at documents than get a skewed summary."
When he had to cast a vote in the contentious smoking ban issue of 2011, for example, he went to bars on Dickson Street and asked the employees for their feedback. He says that the majority of them told him that they feared a loss of business should the ordinance past, which led him to cast a "no" vote, helping to scuttle the efforts to ban smoking in bars and restaurants. Kinion says he felt the heat of what was a pretty unpopular decision.
"But you have to do what you think is right," Kinion says simply.
"When you hear him deliberate before he makes a decision, you'll hear him bring out all of the different aspects," says Mayor Lioneld Jordan. "You know he's really taken the time to listen. He's patient, he's well-prepared, he's a listener."
Kinion shows no sign of slowing his support of Fayetteville and is upbeat and optimistic about the precipice upon which the area finds itself thanks to its immense growth.
"There's a great importance in protecting the heritage and the preservation of the history [of Fayetteville], because that's what we love so much about it," he says. "But I also think you have to be forward thinking and plan to make sure that there is a sustainable foundation for basic services, and also a sustainable appreciation and foundation for those quality of life issues such as arts and humanities. And there is nothing more critical than taking care of the social strata, from those that need social services to those that are willing to be more generous.
"And I'm committed to every type of person in this community."
NAN Profiles on 12/02/2018
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