Archive for February, 2023

A really big deal

Tuesday, February 28th, 2023

On April 22, the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts will hold its grand opening. The AMFA debut in MacArthur Park is the biggest thing to happen in downtown Little Rock since the Clinton Presidential Center opened in November 2004.

Consider this fact: In 2021, Icon magazine published a piece headlined “Architecture To Look Forward To.” The eight projects in the story included only one in the United States — the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts.

That’s a big deal for Arkansas.

“Another major cultural project for Jeanne Gang and her studio, AMFA provides a new public gallery and gathering space,” the magazine noted. “The project … also focuses on strengthening and clarifying connectivity with the broader AMFA campus.”

Gang, a MacArthur Fellow (commonly known as the genius grant) and a professor in practice at Harvard Graduate School of Design, heads Studio Gang. Her firm does work around the world.

Meanwhile, internationally known landscape architecture firm SCAPE designed 13 acres of MacArthur Park surrounding the museum. SCAPE has as sterling a reputation as Studio Gang.

“In working with Studio Gang and SCAPE, we’re realizing the most contemporary ideas about museums and public spaces,” says Victoria Ramirez, AMFA’s executive director.

Along with Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AMFA will give this state two world-class art museums. That’s pretty amazing for a state of just more than 3 million people.

I’ll have more in my column Wednesday on the Voices page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. I hope you’ll take the time to read it.

House of chaos

Monday, February 27th, 2023

The fallout from a governor’s office that’s far more intent on raising the governor’s national political profile than it is on actually running state government continues.

Last week, I wrote about a sweeping directive from the governor’s office that has left people across state government scratching their heads. The order was that there must be approval from the governor’s office before anyone can speak with the media.

Consider the fact that many state departments have full-time people who deal with the media. Let’s say that I’m in such a position at the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. I get a call from a newspaper reporter doing a travel piece on Arkansas. That reporter is in Chicago and on deadline.

Must I get permission from the governor’s office before I return the call?

Or is the order directed specifically toward certain people in Arkansas (which would be even worse and signal a paranoia unlike anything we’ve seen in Arkansas since the Faubus administration)?

I do hope the news side of my newspaper and other media outlets in Arkansas can find the time to dig for answers to these questions.

Here’s part of an email I received from an agency director: “The order was handed down to us through my immediate supervisor, who indicated to me that he did not know what to make of it or how exhaustively or literally to carry it out. I have not yet received additional guidance on how to honor the administration’s order while still being able to converse with all comers. I live in hope, however, of either this happening or the order being effectively, if slowly, walked back.”

Gov. Sarah Sanders continues to receive bad advice from the out-of-state political apparatchiks in her office, the group I’ve dubbed the Traveling Trumpettes. Only a political hack would advise the governor to do an exclusive interview on changes affecting Arkansas schoolchildren with The Washington Examiner (a far-right publication on the East Coast) rather than a publication Arkansans would actually see.

Here’s my hope: There are other people the governor listens to and trusts who will tell her what she needs to hear, not what she necessarily wants to hear.

They will say something along these lines: “Cut out the angry, divisive approach. Call on your better angels. Let’s focus on building Arkansas rather than raising money nationally for a campaign that’s more than three years away.”

When this administration ends and historians write about it, the governor will look back and most appreciate not the brownnosers but those who spoke honestly. The honest ones will be those who truly cared about her personally and cared about this state. The political hacks will have long since moved on to other states and other jobs.

I ask myself each day why our governor comes across as so angry. She has lived a charmed life. Her father was a highly popular governor during her teenage and college years. She was able to see and do things unlike any other girl in Arkansas.

She has two great parents, two witty and fun brothers, a wonderful husband (make sure to read Sunday’s High Profile story on Bryan Sanders; it’s a good story on a good man) and three adorable children.

She worked at a high level at the White House and then became the nation’s youngest governor.

There should be a constant aura of gratitude, humility and pure joy (a happy warrior as we used to call them in politics) for this golden opportunity to improve life in the state where she was raised.

So are the anger, scowls and tough words (which I can only describe as redneck bravado) simply a cynical way to raise even more money from the Trump cultists nationwide?

And for what reason is that money being raised now that she has achieved her goal of becoming Arkansas’ first female governor?

I realize she’s young and is holding public office for the first time. Our prayer must be that she has the maturity to realize she’s off to an awful start, that there must be course corrections immediately and that a smile, kind words and a willingness to listen still go a long way in Arkansas.

End of an era

Friday, February 24th, 2023

I often give a speech about how Arkansas lost more population per capita than any other state from 1940-60. We’ve been gaining population consistently since the 1960s, however.

What led to that turnaround?

On the private-sector side, I point out the amazing business titans — people like Sam Walton, John and then Don Tyson, William Dillard, Charles Murphy, J.B. Hunt and others — who built some of the nation’s top companies in this small, poor state and kept them here.

Also on the private-sector side, I point to Witt and Jack Stephens, who in essence brought Wall Street to Arkansas. They had the ability to take the ideas of the state’s entrepreneurs and then take them public, allowing them to grow to the next level.

On the government side, I point to the power of the Arkansas congressional delegation during the 1960s when we began to turn it around. Those members of Congress were able to bring us projects such as the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundments and more. Such projects helped rescue desperately poor rural areas of Arkansas.

I would always end the speech by saying that we had been blessed since the election of Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in 1966 with a run of moderate, pragmatic governors. This was unusual for a Southern state. And it was not a partisan thing. Five of these governors were Democrats — Dale Bumpers, David Pryor, Bill Clinton, Jim Guy Tucker and Mike Beebe. Four of the governors were Republicans — Rockefeller, Frank White, Mike Huckabee and Asa Hutchinson.

While they might be a bit more partisan on the national stage, back home in Arkansas they governed from the middle. And that was a good thing.

We’re less than two months into the administration of Gov. Sarah Sanders, but it appears that long era has come to an end.

Sanders seems intent on bringing the chaos and divisiveness of the Trump administration to state government — from rushing through a major education overhaul in an attempt to avoid needed debate, to avoiding the Arkansas media while relying on national far-right outlets, to her mindless tweets.

The name calling from the governor is puerile and frankly just tired — the sign of a shallow person unwilling to debate issues on their merits.

“The left is becoming even more desperate with their lies and false attacks,” she tweets.

“We are not messing around in Arkansas. Every kid will have access to a quality education whether the left likes it or not.”

“The left.”

“The radical left.”

So predictable.

So unimaginative.

We’ve not seen anything like this in Arkansas since Orval Faubus and his minions were branding those who would dare ask questions as Communists.

The governor is demeaning her own constituents on a daily basis. And as a native Arkansan who loves this state, it ticks me off.

I think back to when Mike Huckabee was thrust into office following the 1996 resignation of Tucker. Huckabee dropped out of a U.S. Senate race he was going to win and immediately surrounded himself with experienced Arkansans. His senior management team in the governor’s office included highly respected former legislators such as Dick Barclay, Jim von Gremp and Joe Yates.

Huckabee later brought in strong, outspoken women (all native Arkansans with long years of service to the state) such as former legislator Carolyn Pollan of Fort Smith and Judge Betty Dickey of Pine Bluff. Huckabee’s chief of staff his entire time in office was Brenda Turner of Texarkana. Turner worked behind the scenes and kept a low profile, but she was a force of nature.

Sanders, meanwhile, has surrounded herself with political hacks who have no concern about the people of Arkansas or this state’s future. It’s all about the boss’ national political standing inside a Republican Party that is morally and intellectually bankrupt. They’ll simply move on to other states when they’re done here.

There are modern-day Barclays and Pollans out there, governor, who would be happy to help you.

I sincerely pray that you find them and listen to them. It’s still early in your administration. It’s not too late to turn it around.

Arkansas must come first.

Arkansas comes last

Thursday, February 23rd, 2023

Earlier this afternoon, the governor’s office issued a news release touting an interview Gov. Sarah Sanders did with the Washington Examiner. The Examiner described it as an “exclusive interview.”

The fact Sanders would choose to do “an exclusive interview” about education reforms affecting Arkansas children and their parents with an East Coast media outlet rather than a media outlet here in Arkansas is telling.

It’s even more telling that the Examiner isn’t even a mainstream media outlet. It’s a highly partisan, far-right outlet that consists mostly of a digital presence along with a weekly printed magazine. Its stories are seen by very few Arkansans.

When David Pryor was governor from 1975-79, he kept a plaque on his desk that read “Arkansas Comes First.”

In these first two months of the Sanders administration, it has become clear that Arkansas comes last, far behind Sanders’ national political ambitions and her consistent appeals for money from members of the Trump cult.

Arkansas students, teachers and administrators are simply pawns in that fundraising scheme as the education reform bill is rushed through the Legislature with little debate.

On Tuesday, Sanders did a television interview about the education package.

Was it with an Arkansas television station? Nope.

You guessed it, it was with Fox News.

On that same day, Sanders and Jacob Oliva, the education secretary imported from Florida to stamp a national education reform blueprint onto Arkansas, wrote an opinion piece.

Was that piece written for an Arkansas publication where it would be seen by parents of Arkansas schoolchildren?

Of course not, silly. It was written for the Fox News website.

Remember, Arkansas comes last.

All of this effort to cater to national right-wing outlets comes at a time when the sweeping decree from the governor’s office — which dictates that people in state agencies must have prior approval from the office before speaking to the Arkansas media — is still in place.

This ham-handed move has handcuffed our best state employees, who continue to call and send me emails about the chaos of the past two months.

God forbid that the governor visit with an Arkansas journalist when Fox News and the Washington Examiner are out there.

A continued problem is that Sanders has surrounded herself with out-of-state political apparatchiks — people with an interest in national exposure but no real interest in Arkansas.

Yesterday, we gave you some background on Alexa Henning, the Readout Queen, who appears to be the source of the “don’t talk to Arkansans unless we tell you that you can” order.

Sanders’ chief of staff, Gretchen Conger, also has no Arkansas background. She came to the state last year from Arizona under an ethical cloud after working for Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey.

A Texas law firm led by a Ducey donor pressured the state’s revenue department to issue tax refunds for mining companies. The refunds were worth as much as $100 million. The donor hired several Ducey assistants to lobby for him.

According to the highly respected Arizona Republic: “Conger pushed for the tax break for nearly a year before reporting she may have a conflict of interest. That’s because the tax break would have resulted in about a $10 million refund for international mining firm Freeport McMoRan, where her father, Harry “Red” Conger, was president and chief operating officer, and also was a major campaign contributor to Ducey.

“According to the state’s conflict-of-interest statutes ‘any public officer or employee who has, or whose relative has, a substantial interest in any decision of a public agency … shall refrain from participating in any manner as an officer or employee in such decision.'”

Let me note that someone in whom I have great trust assures me that Conger “is capable. She will do the right thing.”

I will take him at his word.

That said, let’s hope the chief of staff now does the right thing and somehow gets through to her boss that she’s not running for national office. Conger can convince the governor that the best way to communicate with the Arkansans who will have to live with this education bill is through Arkansas media outlets.

Conger can also remind the boss that she won’t be on the ballot again until 2026 so there’s really no reason to constantly have a hand out asking for money.

Conger, as chief of staff, can hopefully talk frankly and say: “Boss, the campaign ended back in November. Now is the time to govern, not play political games. Arkansas comes first.”

The Readout Queen

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2023

The fallout from the sweeping decree that came from the governor’s office — that people in various departments and agencies must have prior approval from that office before speaking with anyone from the media — continues.

And my phone continues to ring as people inside the governor’s office and in state agencies tell me stories of the chaos that has marked the early months of the Sanders administration.

For now, let’s continue to give our new governor the benefit of the doubt and just say she has received awful advice from what I call the Traveling Trumpettes — political apparatchiks who are simply passing through Arkansas on their way to their next political job; people who know nothing about Arkansas and care nothing about the people who live here. The only goal is to keep “the boss” happy and move up the political ladder.

I mentioned yesterday my calls from and visits with various state government officials — people I’ve known for many years, by the way — who consider their hands tied by this decree and no longer feel like they have the freedom to run their agencies.

One told me that if I wanted to have a lunch meeting we had previously agreed to, I would need to call Alexa Henning, someone I’ve never met.

Who is Alexa Henning?

Around the office, some of us call her the Readout Queen. Soon after Gov. Sarah Sanders took office, we began receiving these strange emails titled “a readout from Alexa Henning.”

I spent several years living on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., covering the federal government. I had the privilege of being, at one time or another, in the Oval Office with three consecutive presidents — one Democrat and two Republicans. So I’m not new to the Washington political game. But I had never heard the word.

I contacted my editor from almost 40 years ago, who’s still active in the business, and asked, “What the heck is a readout?” (or at least words to that effect).

She didn’t have a clue. After a bit of research, she told me it’s a newfangled Washington term for somebody who wasn’t one of the principals in a meeting trying to describe said meeting.

Ms. Henning, this ain’t Washington. This is a state of only 3 million people. We tend to know each other on a first-name basis. I’ve known the governor, for example, since she was 10. If the governor wants to tell us about a meeting, she should do it herself rather than someone from out of state we don’t know.

Even better, open some of these meetings to the media so they can report how hard you guys are working and how productive the meetings are.

Henning, one of the Traveling Trumpettes, worked for Sen. Ted Cruz’s losing presidential campaign in 2016 and later worked in the Trump White House. She then worked in 2020 for Trump’s losing presidential campaign, making her two for two in working for losers.

In 2021, she joined the staff of Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who had been one of the leading Trump lapdogs in the Senate.

After Trump’s loss in November 2020, Johnson fell in for a time with the lunatic fringe that was claiming the election was stolen. A former Wisconsin GOP official said Johnson had confided in a November phone call that he knew the election was legitimate but was scared to say so publicly.

I could go on about things such as Johnson’s involvement in the Trump-Ukraine scandal, but this post is about the out-of-staters who are now running Arkansas state government. I want to shed just a little light on those to whom the good people in our departments and agencies are now having to answer.

Henning joined the governor’s office in January with the title of communications director.

Next: The political apparatchik who fled to Arkansas under an ethical cloud and wound up as the governor’s chief of staff.

Stay tuned.

The governor’s blackball

Tuesday, February 21st, 2023

In the past few weeks, the Arkansas governor’s office issued an edict to state government officials that they cannot visit with members of the media without prior approval.

My phone started ringing soon after the order went out. I even had a personal visit from one state official. The state officials with whom I visited were apologetic, embarrassed and, in at least one case, angry. I’ve known most of them for years.

The governor’s office likely will say something along these lines: “This is simply to ensure a consistent message.”

This rings hollow, however, since I’ve had several appointments postponed or called off because, the state officials told me, I’ve been critical of the administration.

Ah, a Nixon-style enemies list.

The irony of being blackballed is that (a) I rarely write about politics; (b) when I do, I always try to make criticism constructive, never personal; (c) my criticism of Gov. Sarah Sanders has been much more muted than many of her critics; (d) all the columns I would have written likely would have been positive.

I’ve been following Arkansas governors for decades, and I can never recall a sweeping edict such as this one; one intended to punish those branded as critics.

I would call it Faubusesque, but I’m not sure Orval Faubus ever went this far.

Unfortunately, the governor has surrounded herself with top aides who are traveling political apparatchiks who aren’t from Arkansas, won’t stay in Arkansas for long and care nothing about the people of our state.

For now, I will give the governor the benefit of the doubt and just say that she is receiving awful advice. Department heads, division heads and others have been severely handcuffed by having to ask for permission every time they wish to promote their agencies and their accomplishments.

If you don’t trust them, you shouldn’t have appointed them.

If the petty and ham-handed actions of the governor’s subordinates continue, I expect some of the best and brightest to leave this administration within a year. They’re already disillusioned and disgruntled.

Several state employees have told horror stories of a governor’s office in disarray during these early months of the administration, mirroring the chaos of the Trump White House from which some of the top aides came. Backstabbing and complaining are rampant, I’m told.

I’m not a news reporter anymore. There are some good ones at the state Capitol, though, and I’m confident they’ll get to the bottom of this far-reaching edict (I’m told that even PowerPoint presentations must be reviewed before civic club speeches can be given) before more damage is done.

I hope organizations such as the Arkansas Press Association will speak out strongly. This kind of thing is dangerous.

It’s time to get some veteran Arkansans into that office; men and women who will give the governor honest assessments and help her build relationships across the state rather than tearing them apart.

We’re a small state. We already know each other. We deserve better than what the Traveling Trumpettes in the governor’s office are giving us.

Much more to come.