Speaker Carter and change in Arkansas

In my newspaper column for this week, I noted that the incoming speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives — a 37-year-old banker and attorney from Cabot named Davy Carter — personifies the two revolutions that are forever changing the Arkansas in which I was raised.

The first is a demographic revolution.

The second is a political revolution.

Carter, a man I happen to think will make an outstanding speaker, was raised at Marianna in Lee County.

Lee County is representative of the counties in east Arkansas and south Arkansas that are bleeding population, a trend that has sped up in the past decade.

The largest population ever recorded in Lee County was 28,852 in 1920.

Here are the Lee County census figures since then:

1930 — 26,637

1940 — 26,810

1950 — 24,322

1960 — 21,001

1970 — 18,884

1980 — 15,539

1990 — 13,053

2000 — 12,580

2010 — 10,424

As you can see, Lee County now has about a third of the population it had in 1920.

Lonoke County, where Carter now lives, is representative of the counties in central and northwest Arkansas where there’s explosive population growth.

As agricultural mechanization took hold and sharecroppers left the farm, Lonoke County saw its population decrease from 33,400 in 1920 to 24,551 in 1960.

Then came white flight from Little Rock and the growth of Cabot as a Little Rock suburb. Take a look at the Lonoke County census figures since then:

1970 — 26,249

1980 — 34,518

1990 — 39,268

2000 — 52,828

2010 — 68,356.

With his move from Lee County to Lonoke County, Carter symbolizes the population switch taking place in Arkansas — 39 counties gained population and 36 counties lost population between 2000 and 2010.

It’s a trend for which there’s no end in sight as east and south Arkansas lose population while the central, western and northern areas of the state grow.

Next, there’s the political revolution.

For the first time in any of our lifetimes, Arkansas is truly a two-party state. For the first time in 138 years, Republicans hold majorities in both houses of the Arkansas Legislature, and those majorities are likely to grow in the years ahead.

Because he is a Republican — and a young, articulate one at that — Carter also symbolizes the political revolution. This revolution is one in which younger business and civic leaders statewide are now identifying themselves with the GOP, especially in those 39 counties that are gaining population.

Jay Barth, the Hendrix College professor who understands this state’s politics better than most, divides the state into five political regions. They are:

1. The fast-growing counties of northwest Arkansas, which tend to vote Republican.

2. The counties surrounding Pulaski County, which are also now Republican. The growth rate in these counties match, or in some cases exceed, the growth rates in northwest Arkansas. From 2000 to 2010, Faulkner County grew 31.6 percent, Lonoke County grew 29.4 percent and Saline County grew 28.2 percent.

3. Pulaski County itself (which grew 5.9 percent in the first decade of this century) with its reliably Democratic voters.

4. The Delta counties (most of which are losing population) with their Democratic tendencies.

5. A swath of swing counties that run from the southwest corner to the northeast corner of the state (skipping Pulaski County).

Barth sees these swing counties going more and more Republican in the years ahead. Indeed, when I grew up in Clark County, we didn’t know what a Republican was. Earlier this month, Clark County, of all places, elected a Republican to the state House of Representatives.

“The decisiveness of the Republican gains in these counties in 2012 suggests that they may have swung so hard that, combined with the other two GOP-leaning regions, there is now a comfortable Republican advantage in all statewide elections,” Barth wrote in last week’s edition of the Arkansas Times. “The statewide elections in 2014 will test this hypothesis. Probable Democratic gubernatorial nominee Dustin McDaniel may be able to bring some of the rural swing counties in the northeast part of the state back into play for his party, but the Obama-era gains up and down this spine of rural counties suggests that they have left behind their populism of the past and may well quash Arkansas Democratic hopes in the future.”

I agree with that analysis. Unlike Barth, though, I’m not yet ready to call McDaniel the probable Democratic nominee. I think there will be hotly contested primaries in both parties.

And I’ll go ahead and declare that the 2014 election for governor is one of the most important in the past century in this state. Because of our two revolutions — the demographic revolution and the political revolution — it’s crucial that we elect someone with the leadership ability necessary to prevent Arkansas from splitting into what in essence is two states within a state.

We need a governor who understands all of this state’s regions and their residents. In that respect, Arkansas has been fortunate in recent decades. Gov. Mike Beebe grew up in the Delta in Jackson County and never forgets the needs of east Arkansas, though he maintains strong support in the more prosperous regions of the state.

Beebe’s predecessor, Gov. Mike Huckabee, grew up in the southwest corner of the state in Hempstead County and knew what it was like to be an Arkansan outside the reach of the Little Rock television market.

The twin revolutions require a governor who understands the needs of all 75 counties and has the ability to work with both Republicans and Democrats.

Things get even more interesting when you consider that this will be the first governor’s race since 1966 without a clear frontrunner or an incumbent in the race. In 1966, Orval Faubus chose not to seek a seventh two-year term as governor. Republican Winthrop Rockefeller, who had lost to Faubus two years earlier, defeated Democratic nominee Jim Johnson, becoming the first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

Consider what has happened since then:

— Rockefeller ran as an incumbent in 1968 and 1970, winning the first time and losing to Dale Bumpers in 1970.

— Bumpers won as an incumbent in 1972.

— David Pryor entered the race as the acknowledged frontrunner in 1974 in a Democratic primary race against Faubus and my Arkadelphia neighbor at the time, Lt. Gov. Bob Riley. It was evident that the Faubus era had passed and that Riley couldn’t raise the money needed to run a viable campaign.

— Pryor won re-election in 1976.

— In 1978, then-Attorney General Bill Clinton began the race as the frontrunner. He lost as an incumbent in 1980, and Gov. Frank White in turn lost to Clinton as an incumbent in 1982.

— Clinton then won re-election as an incumbent in 1984, 1986 (when the state went to four-year terms) and 1990.

— Jim Guy Tucker moved up from lieutenant governor when Clinton resigned to move to the White House at the end of 1992, and Tucker won as an incumbent in 1994.

— Huckabee moved up from lieutenant governor following Tucker’s resignation in July 1996, and Huckabee won as an incumbent in 1998 and 2002.

— Beebe entered the 2006 race as the frontrunner and won re-election as an incumbent in 2010.

So we had incumbents in the race in 1968, 1970, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002.

In the other years — 1974, 1978 and 2006 — there were established frontrunners at the start.

In the newspaper column, I mentioned a story I wrote for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette more than 16 years ago when I was the newspaper’s political editor. In the spring of 1996, with Clinton running for re-election as president, we decided to publish stories on 10 key states. One of the states I wrote about was Texas.

I visited with then-Gov. George W. Bush at a Lincoln Day dinner in Waco, but I decided to focus my story on the changes in Williamson County, which is just north of Austin.

Williamson County was experiencing a population surge at the time. The pace of growth hasn’t subsided since then. The county grew 69 percent from 2000 to 2010. I went to the county seat of Georgetown and heard how Williamson County, once solidly Democratic, had turned Republican.

What was happening in Williamson County in Texas back then reminds me of the things happening now in places such as Saline, Faulkner, Lonoke and White counties in Arkansas.

People such as Carter represent the future of Arkansas politics.

Carter attended Arkansas State University. After a short time in Memphis working for the investment banking firm Morgan Keegan, he returned to Arkansas to work in banking for First National Bank of Eastern Arkansas. He later attended law school at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Carter, who first was elected to the House four years ago, works for Centennial Bank. He won me over back in early 2010 when he answered a question from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Three Rivers Edition that went like this: “What’s one thing you want to accomplish in life but haven’t yet?”

His answer: “Own a barbecue joint.”

Now you’re talking. What else would you expect from someone from Marianna, the home of the great Jones barbecue joint, winner of a James Beard Award earlier this year?

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