Arkansas Democrat-Gazette High Profile: Republican Ted Mullenix built his career in dark blue Garland County
Whether it was rural labor during his childhood or the challenge of taking office as the first Republican in Garland County since Reconstruction, Ted Mullenix was undaunted by hard work.
He doesn't worry about stage fright, either.
"I won Dancing With Our Stars -- that was a miracle," says Mullenix, who owns a lobbying and advocacy firm, Mullenix and Associates, in Little Rock.
When asked to participate in that 2021 event to raise money for Children's Tumor Foundation, Mullenix was happy to oblige but insisted he be allowed to sing as well as dance.
"I said, 'That's the only way I'm going to do it,'" he recalls. "I went out and bought a way-too-expensive Elvis suit and I did some Elvis songs and with my instructor, bless her heart ... we were able to win it."
Mullenix and his wife, Julie, are co-chairing Dancing With Our Stars 2023, set for 6 p.m. Sept. 7, in the Wally Allen Ballroom in the Statehouse Convention Center. The event benefits the Children's Tumor Foundation, which funds research, support and care for people diagnosed with neurofibromatosis, a group of genetic disorders that causes tumors to grow on nerves all over the body. Neurofibromatosis affects one in 2,000 people and can lead to blindness, deafness, bone abnormalities, disfigurement, disabling pain or cancer.
Lesley Oslica, president of the Arkansas chapter of Children's Tumor Foundation, was thrilled to have him on board.
"First, dancing his way to the mirror-ball trophy in 2021 as our first-ever Elvis, to now making this event as successful as it can be as a co-chair, we're incredibly honored that Ted Mullinex dedicates his time to our cause," said Oslica, whose daughter has neurofibromatosis. "His commitment to our mission and his flair for creativity have made such an impact on spreading awareness and raising money for critical NF research."
Mullenix played some of Elvis' music over the years, along with some southern gospel and old country tunes.
MUSIC MOUNTAIN JAMBOREE
In 1983, the same year he was elected state representative, Mullenix started the Music Mountain Jamboree in Hot Springs, entertaining people from all over the country with comedy and music.
"After the legislative session, I thought, 'Well, what am I going to do?' I had always been traveling around in sales and stuff," he says. "I said, 'I would really like to have my own show.'"
He couldn't find a comedian for his jamboree, even after scouring Branson for the right fit, so he came up with his own comedy routine.
"My banker told me I better learn to be funny," he says. "That was probably the best thing that happened to me my whole life. I was so blessed, a lot of people thought that was funny and it's just a joy to make people laugh and forget their troubles."
Both of his daughters and three grandchildren were among family members who had parts in the long-running show.
"Both daughters were talented singers," Mullenix says. "One night some people from Nashville called me and they said they kept hearing about Becky singing. They gave her the opportunity. They said 'We want to put you on the road and record you.'"
Becky Arguello, Mullenix's daughter, turned down that chance, focusing instead on raising her daughter, Ali.
"At 21, her daughter got killed in a car wreck," Mullenix says. "I have always looked at that and said God knows what's going on. He said, 'I'm going to keep you home with your daughter because I know how long she's going to be here.'"
Becky died of melanoma in 2020.
Pam Hopkins, Mullenix's other daughter, works for Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs.
Years earlier, Mullenix also worked for Oaklawn Park, selling race tickets.
Eric Jackson, Oaklawn's senior vice president, became well-acquainted with Mullenix during that time.
"Our paths crossed as he served in the Legislature and then when he got out of the Legislature and went into lobbying he knew us and he knew Hot Springs and he knew Garland County better than anyone else I knew, and I think we became his first client," Jackson says.
Jackson had seen Mullenix's jamboree several times.
"What impressed me was when he was in the Legislature there were times when he served in the Legislature all day," says Jackson, "he would come to Hot Springs and they would do a show that night, he would have dinner at midnight and he would get up the next morning and read the bills and the legislation that he had to read and be back in Little Rock by 7 or 7:30."
Jackson once hoped the show's music and levity could smooth out differences.
"Ted and Jim Guy Tucker were at odds with one another and I actually tried to get Jim Guy to come over and go to the show with me and see if we could mend some fences," Jackson says. "It turned out that Jim Guy wasn't willing and Ted was glad that he wasn't willing, so that was an idea that crashed and burned before it ever got started."
That, however, was not a reflection on Mullenix's political skills, Jackson says.
"He has always had an uncanny ability to gather people together with different backgrounds, ideas, beliefs and viewpoints, and help them find a consensus," Jackson says. "Very difficult to do, especially in today's world where everyone seems so divided on everything."
Jackson sings Mullenix's praises in the management course he teaches at Oaklawn each year.
"I say he is one of my heroes," Jackson says. "He has been very successful in life. He was of modest means starting out but just a terrific work ethic, and I'm proud of him."
SMALL TOWN BOY
Mullenix grew up in tiny Oden in Montgomery County, where people from surrounding areas gathered on Saturdays to shop, arriving first by horse and wagon and then, gradually, by car.
His father was orphaned young.
"There were two boys and two girls and they were split up -- one boy and one girl went to one family and one boy and one girl went to another family," Mullenix says.
Mullenix's father had one of the first peddling trucks in the area, and Mullenix would tag along as he drove the back roads and up into the mountains and traded staples like sugar and flour for fresh milk and eggs to sell in their grocery store.
"We would come back to the store and it was my job to candle eggs and separate the milk," he says, explaining the process of holding each egg to the light to make sure it was shelf-worthy.
His dad also cut hair, drove a school bus and operated the first chicken house in Montgomery County.
"It held 500 chickens and it grew 'til we had 7,500 chickens," Mullenix says. "I took care of one of the houses and my father took care of the other one."
His dad had a chronic wound on his leg, and it had to be dressed every night.
"No doctor could cure it," Mullenix says. "He would stand on it so long that it would bleed, and he would just work."
Mullenix and his parents listened to gospel music on the radio every evening and went to bed at 8:30 p.m.
"My mom ... I knew her enough to know that I'm sorry she left me so early," says Mullenix, who was 11 when his mother died of breast cancer. "If I've got any personality or loving people, my mom was certainly responsible for that."
Mullenix swept the auditorium and classrooms at his school to pay for his lunch each day.
"We made enough money to get by," he says, "but no frills or thrills. I'm not complaining. I wouldn't trade it for anything."
The Mullenix family made regular appearances at the little Brushy Creek Baptist Church.
"Both of my folks are buried there, my brother is buried there, the rest of our family is buried there, so we go back once a year, the first Sunday in May, to celebrate the family, and there's lots of singing. That's the first place I was taught to sing," Mullenix says. "I think that took some of the shyness out of me early on."
At age 16, his job was pulling heavy boats ashore and washing them at Mountain Harbor Resort. His brother moved to Kansas City after that, and Mullenix followed to work at his car wash, where a chain pulled cars through a wash station.
"There would be four of us and we would jump in and clean it inside while it was going through and while people were on the outside washing it," he says. "My brother had a record of washing 1,000 cars in one day."
Mullenix completed a GED in 1963, and moved to Hot Springs to find work.
"That was hard to do," he says.
He drove a gravel and sand truck and sold insurance for a few years in Mount Ida. Back in Hot Springs, he worked at Arthur Cook's Ice Cream and delivered milk. By then, he had started playing music, which he did until 2 a.m., one hour before he needed to start his daily milk delivery route.
"I enjoyed my music, but early on in my life, it absolutely helped me make a living," he says.
Other jobs included working in a shoe plant, parking cars at the legendary Vapors nightclub and selling ads for a radio station. One day, he came in from a shift selling ads to learn that his manager expected him to fill in an on-air spot the next day.
"I said, 'Well, I've never done that,'" he says. "And he said, 'Well, this time tomorrow you can say you have.'"
He did well enough that he got a regular Saturday morning program. He would talk about music and spin records, and in the process he gained name recognition.
"That led to me getting to go to the Grand Ole Opry for a DJ convention," he says. "All the Grand Ole Opry stars would come in off the road and be there for the disc jockeys. I've got the recordings somewhere of Dolly Parton saying, 'Hi, this is Dolly Parton and I'm listening to the Ted Mullenix Show.' I had that from just a number of Grand Ole Opry stars."
Mullenix got a chance to go backstage at the Grand Ole Opry and pop through the open doors of stars' dressing rooms for chats.
"My music career kind of got started after that," he says. "There were some people doing little shows around in an old theater," he says. "You got to do like a 30-minute show or whatever, and we had to sell it. So I would have sold my part to Joe's Barbershop or whatever and you'd advertise them on stage."
Mullenix's interest in politics was sparked by news he heard on the radio as he traveled for work.
"One day I said, I'm just going to go by there," he says of the state Capitol. "I started going by there and just sitting in the gallery if I had to be up here -- I had to go up to Cabot a lot."
After a while, he wanted a more active role.
"I think I was just interested in the process," he says. "I loved debate and back then there was great debate on the floor."
A REPUBLICAN IN A BLUE COUNTY
When he went to file for candidacy the county clerk had assumed he would run as a Democrat because there had not been a Republican in office for years and had to do some research to figure out how to complete the process for a Republican.
Mullenix defeated a 12-year entrenched Democrat for the House seat in District 32.
"I went and knocked on almost every door in my district," he says. "Someone said, 'How did Ted Mullenix get elected, anyway?' and another guy who traveled like me said, 'He worked. If we wanted to sell anything we had to knock doors and he was selling Ted Mullenix.'"
Mullenix served for several years as minority leader, and also was appointed chairman of the State Parks Subcommittee.
"I arranged for the State Parks Subcommittee to visit every state park in Arkansas," Mullenix says. "I led the effort for the tourism industry to self-impose a 2% tourism tax which I sponsored. That tourism tax, still in place today, is used to advance and promote tourism across the state and has been foundational in growing our tourism industry."
Mullenix met his wife, a lawyer, when she was lobbying for chiropractors.
"She came to me and said, 'Would you vote for this bill?' and I said, 'No, I've already committed to the other side, so I can't,'" he says. "But I said, 'I'll help you. I'll introduce you to some people in the Senate.' And I did."
They married 11 years ago.
Mullenix left office in 1998 and he and Julie started their firm in 1999.
"We started with one client, the Arkansas Municipal Police Association, and we've grown to a number of clients," he says, listing Le Bonheur Children's Hospital in Memphis, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Big River Steel as a few of the firm's clients. "We really have become known for helping economic projects in the state."
Dave Stickler, former CEO of Big River Steel, hired Mullenix for advice on Arkansas' rules and regulations.
"When I was running Big River Steel, which was the new steel mill that we located in northeast Arkansas, it was a $1.3 billion investment. At the time, it was the state's largest industrial investment. It was the state's first Amendment 82 project, which the legislators had put in place to attract mega projects, projects that were in excess of a billion dollars," Stickler says. "Working with
Ted Mullenix and his wife, Julie, made my life significantly easier, because they were able to educate me on the rules and requirements of conducting business in Arkansas, and dealing with various branches of government."
Julie Mullenix says her husband's tenacity and optimism work in the firm's favor.
"He has this relentless determination to win -- both in terms of having a highly successful firm and in terms of winning the battles of each individual client and he has done that well," she says. "It would be hard to match his track record of successes for our clients at the state Capitol."
Mullenix is not all business, though.
"He loves to make people laugh and that's almost a constant, but he has a very serious side too and can get your attention in a hurry when he gets serious," she says. "He loves to keep a project going whether it is a landscaping project of our own or a charitable endeavor like Dancing With Our Stars. I think he is working with Lesley [Oslica] to totally revamp the DWOS format this year and it will be fabulous. With all his projects, he gets a lot of satisfaction in leaving things better than he found them."
MY BEST CHILDHOOD MEMORY: The time I got to spend with my Mom before she died at an early age.
MY FAMILY WOULD SAY I'M: Funny.
THE THING I LOVE MOST ABOUT MY JOB: Constant challenge with fulfilling rewards when we achieve good results for our clients and Arkansans. I enjoy the partnership I have with my wife, Julie, and the team we make together.
THE BEST ADVICE I EVER GOT: Be honorable and have a strong work ethic. If you can dream it you can do it! Only way to fail is to not try!
I LOVE TO EAT: Steak and country cooking.
MY HAPPY PLACE IS: Relaxing with Julie in our den or on the porch. We often watch a movie together or catch up on the news before bed.
WHEN I'M ON A STAGE: I get great satisfaction of watching people laugh or enjoy my music.
SOMETHING FEW PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT ME: My love for performing music and comedy with my daughters and grandkids who performed on stage from a very early age. We operated a 700-seat theater in Hot Springs for almost 25 years and entertained visitors from almost every state.
ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Determined