When the 89th Arkansas General Assembly convenes in January 2013, Darrin Williams ’93 will make history when he becomes the first African American speaker of the house. He will also be the first black person to hold a statewide elected office in Arkansas since the early 1870s, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas and the highest ranking African American to serve in an elected position in Arkansas.
An Arkansas native who grew up in Little Rock, Williams is serving his second term representing District 36, which covers a portion of the city. He has chaired the House Judiciary Committee and led the passage of the Public Safety Improvement Act, which beefed up the state’s parole and probation services and provides for less costly means of sentencing non-violent offenders. Williams projects the act will save Arkansas over $850 million in corrections spending over the next decade.
Williams juggles his role as a state representative with his thriving Little Rock practice as a partner at Carney Williams Bates Pulliam & Bowman, where he is a plaintiffs’ attorney focusing on class actions and securities and consumer litigation. He credits his ability to do what amounts to two full-time jobs for part of each year to several factors: a strong desire to serve, the helpful fact that he requires only four hours of sleep a night, a fierce work ethic he cultivated in law school, his well-established law practice, and “a group of partners who are cooperative and willing for me to do this.” He invested the time to build his practice before running for a seat in the Arkansas General Assembly after receiving some sound advice from former Virginia Governor Doug Wilder. “It was no secret that I was going to run for state office at some point,” Williams said. “Governor Wilder said, ‘Make sure you’ve established your career and that you have a way to provide for your family before you run for office.” By the time Williams first ran for office in 2008, he had been an attorney for 14 years, spent the last six years in private practice, and was a named partner in his firm.
In addition to his law partners, Williams has a willing life partner in his wife, Nicole Sippial ’94, whom he first met during his first year of law school when she visited as a prospective student. Sippial chose Vanderbilt, and the couple connected through the Black Law Students Association. They dated throughout law school, although Williams recalls that most of their time together revolved around studying. He looked forward to attending church with Sippial each Sunday, followed by lunch, because “for a few short hours, we focused on something other than law school,” he said. “Church was never as fun as it was then.” They have been married for 17 years and have a son and a daughter.
After earning his Vanderbilt J.D., Williams earned an LL.M. in securities law at Georgetown, during which he worked at the SEC and discovered that he enjoyed securities work; a substantial portion of his law practice now involves representing institutional investors. After stints working for Arkansas Senator David Pryor and with the Democratic National Committee, where he focused on outreach, Williams returned to Arkansas in 1999 to serve as chief of staff and counsel to Mark Pryor, who was just beginning his administration as the state’s attorney general. Williams became the chief deputy attorney general in 2001 during time Pryor was successfully running for the U.S. Senate. At the AG’s office, he honed his legal skills dealing with consumer fraud and his management skills directing a staff of 60 attorneys and 65 other office personnel. Williams has been approached about running for state Attorney General in 2014.
Options other than devoting a significant portion of his career to public service frankly never occurred to Williams. Adopted as an infant by a minister and a schoolteacher, “I grew watching two servant leaders,” he recalled. “There was always someone at our home who needed a meal, spiritual counseling or tutoring, and my parents were very active in the community. Their example really set me on the service path, and holding office is a way to combine servant leadership and an interest in law and politics.” His first public office involved a seat on the Little Rock Planning Commission, dealing with enforcement and zoning issues. “Local government is where the rubber meets the road,” he said. “I learned a lot.”
Williams graduated from historic Central High in Little Rock before earning his undergraduate degree at Hendrix, a well-regarded Arkansas liberal arts college. But while he recognizes his rapid ascent to speaker of the Arkansas House as a significant milestone, he is ready to move past racial lines. “I’ve been black for 43 years, so I’m kind of used to this,” he told the Associated Press after his election as speaker-designate. “What my daughter said to me was, ‘Dad, I don’t want you to be the black speaker. I’m praying for you because I want to you to be speaker.’ I don’t want to have a label in front of ‘speaker.’ I am the speaker designate for the 89th general assembly.”