Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

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.

The breakfast club

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

It’s shortly past 7 a.m. on a Wednesday, and Don Allen is sitting at his usual spot.

They call it the Round Table, and it’s in the corner of the state Capitol’s basement cafeteria in Little Rock.

Allen, 85, is the patriarch of the Round Table, a legendary breakfast spot where politics, sports and personalities have been cussed and discussed for decades.

Allen became a regular at the table in 1972 when he joined the staff of then-Gov. Dale Bumpers. He can be found in the same seat most weekday mornings, having arrived by 5:20 a.m.

“They let me in the back door,” he says.

When Allen began coming to the Capitol basement for breakfast, legislators such as Rep. John Miller of Melbourne and Rep. Lloyd Reid George of Danville ruled the roost at the Round Table.

On the large lazy Susan in the middle of the table, brass nameplates for Miller and George state that their seats are “reserved in perpetuity.” The nameplates were purchased by Little Rock attorney George Jernigan, a former chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party and a former chairman of the Little Rock-based Political Animals Club.

“When someone dies, we move the nameplates from the actual table to the lazy Susan,” Allen says.

George, a noted raconteur, was born in 1926 in his grandparents’ house at Centerville in Yell County and grew up at Ola. He graduated from Hendrix College and then became a coach and teacher at Fourche Valley, Ola, Morrilton and Gillett. George later borrowed enough money from his father and grandmother to open a butane gas company at Danville, where he was elected mayor.

George first was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1962 and served a total of 28 years. He would celebrate the final day of legislative sessions by wearing overalls, a sign that it was time to go back to the farm in Yell County. George died in February 2012 at age 85.

Miller, who lived in Izard County for 84 of his 85 years, was a 1949 Arkansas State University graduate who worked in his family’s retail business before spending four years as the Izard County clerk. He later opened an insurance agency, a title abstract business and a real estate brokerage.

Miller was elected to the Arkansas House in 1958, the start of a 40-year legislative career. He soon became recognized as the expert on the state budget. Miller died in June 2014.

There’s one other nameplate on the lazy Susan. It belongs to former Rep. William K. “Mac” McGehee of Fort Smith, who was elected to the Legislature in 1996 and was found dead of natural causes in his apartment in the Capitol Hill Building adjacent to the state Capitol just before the 1999 legislative session. McGehee was given his “reserved in perpetuity” spot because he had the current lazy Susan made by the Riverside Furniture Co. in Fort Smith and then flew it to Little Rock in his private plane.

“It’s a lot bigger than the old lazy Susan,” Allen says matter of factly. “George Jernigan gave us the old one, but it was hard to reach.”

The lazy Susan has not only bottles of barbecue sauce, hot sauce and pepper sauce but also jars of homemade jams, jellies and preserves that legislators bring and leave there. Jars of honey and sorghum molasses also are dropped off from time to time.

The table was constructed by the staff of Arkansas Secretary of State Bill McCuen, who later was imprisoned for corruption in office. McCuen died of cancer at age 57 in 2000. Before his election as secretary of state in 1984, he had served as a public school teacher and principal at Hot Springs, as the Garland County judge and as state land commissioner.

McCuen put his signature on most everything at the Capitol during his decade as secretary of state and had a soft spot for those who sat at the Round Table. The new table — the smaller version used in earlier years now sits on the other side of the cafeteria — was made out of leftover plywood from a Christmas display.

Capitol observers thought the Round Table’s days were numbered in November 2014 when Arkansas voters approved an ethics amendment that would no longer allow lobbyists to buy breakfast for legislators. For years, top lobbyists would put money in the pot to fund the breakfast activities. Legislators who were invited to sit at the table simply went through the line, got what they wanted and had their purchases recorded in the spiral-bound notebook that rested next to the cash register.

Ron Harrod is a longtime lobbyist who became a regular at the Round Table after being appointed in early 1983 to the powerful Arkansas Highway Commission to replace James Branyan of Camden. Harrod, a Dumas native, was an insurance agent in Prescott at the time.

“When the ethics amendment passed, we decided to shut down the table,” Harrod says. “But you know what? Not a single legislator complained about having to buy breakfast. We found out that it was about the fellowship rather than the food.”

He then adds (with a smile for the benefit of the legislators at the table): “We’re not allowed to buy them breakfast, although one of them could buy me breakfast. To this day, not a single legislator has offered to buy my breakfast.”

There are still two brass nameplates on the table for living legends.

One belongs to Allen, who became the executive vice president of the influential Arkansas Poultry Federation in 1976 and held the job until 2000, when he retired and was replaced by former state Sen. Morril Harriman. When Mike Beebe became governor in January 2007, Harriman resigned from the Poultry Federation to become Beebe’s chief of staff, a job he held for Beebe’s entire eight years as governor.

The other nameplate belongs to Tim Massanelli, a native of the community of Goat Shed in Lincoln County. Massanelli worked on his family farm, ran a liquor store and managed a coin-operated machine business during the early years of his career. In 1973, at the suggestion of state Rep. G.W. “Buddy” Turner, he became the parliamentarian for the Arkansas House of Representatives and served for 38 years until retiring in 2011.

Massanelli worked with 19 speakers, seven governors and more than 1,000 House members. He was replaced by Buddy Johnson, who began working for the House in 1985 after having served as a reporter for United Press International. Johnson joins the breakfast group on this Wednesday morning, trading barbs easily with Allen and Harrod.

Massanelli’s nameplate has a spelling mistake. It says that his chair is “reserved in perpeturity.” The regulars decided to leave the plate just like it is so they could give Massanelli a hard time.

Allen tells stories of past legislators such as the late state Rep. Bobby Newman of Smackover, who Allen says would order three soft eggs each morning and then sop up all the yolk with his toast. Then there was the legislator who irked the late Zelma Maxenberger, who managed the cafeteria for a quarter of a century. The legislator, who shall remain nameless, would loudly ring a bell for service prior to the official opening time of 6 a.m. Told by the management that no coffee would be served to those at the Round Table until 7 a.m. if he didn’t stop ringing the bell, the offending legislator was banned from the table.

“Sometimes we have 14 or 15 people sitting over here at one time,” Allen says. “I have to tell you that the idea of lobbyists buying off politicians with a meal is pure BS. This has simply been a way for us to get to know each other through the years.”

Harrod says: “Most of these legislators have someplace where they go for coffee back in their towns. This is just the Little Rock version of what they have back at home.”

Many of the traditional spots where Arkansans gathered for breakfast and political talk in the 20th century are gone. One notable example was the Sno-White Grill at Pine Bluff, which closed last year and was replaced by an Italian restaurant. Sno-White was founded in 1936, one year before Walt Disney produced his first full-length animated classic, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

The Pine Bluff institution closed when Bobby Garner decided to retire at age 79. Garner would arrive at 5:30 a.m. six mornings a week with the restaurant opening at 6 a.m. Among the coffee-drinking regulars, there were 6 a.m., 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 9 a.m. and even 10 a.m. shifts.

While the state Capitol has the Round Table, Sno-White had the famed Back Booth. It was a large booth with political posters covering the walls behind it — “I’m for Arkansas and Faubus,” “John McClellan for Senate,” “Dale Bumpers for Senate” and even “Monroe A. Scharwazlose, Democratic Candidate for Governor, The Law and Order Candidate.”

Schwarzlose, who raised turkeys in nearby Kingsland, ran for governor in the Democratic primaries of 1978, 1980, 1982 and 1984.

Kelley-Wyatt’s in Batesville had its Round Table, where Independence County politicians gathered for years. The restaurant closed for a time but reopened last fall.

Jerry’s in Fayetteville, long a breakfast gathering spot near the Washington County Courthouse, is gone. But a well-known restaurant up the road in Springdale lives on. In 1944, Toy and Bertha Neal began serving meals in Springdale. Neal’s Café still opens at 6 a.m. seven days a week and is a political gathering place for the northwest corner of the state. It fact, its political cachet increased when owner Micah Neal was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2012. Toy and Bertha Neal were Micah Neal’s great-grandparents. Micah’s father, Don Neal, later ran the restaurant in the landmark pink building.

In Conway, Bob’s Grill on Oak Street downtown has the motto: “If it happens in Conway, it’s talked about at Bob’s Grill.”

Away from the state Capitol in Little Rock, the breakfast spot for politicians was once the Coachman’s Inn, a hotel owned by famed financiers Jack and Witt Stephens. It stood where the downtown post office is now located. In 1983, Skip Rutherford left the staff of U.S. Sen. David Pryor and moved to the private sector to work for Mack McLarty, the chief executive officer of Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. Rutherford missed politics and wanted an excuse for those with a strong interest in the political game to gather and talk about what was going on in Arkansas. He asked some friends to join him one morning at the Coachman’s for breakfast. Judge William J. Smith was invited to talk about former Gov. Orval Faubus and the 1957 Little Rock school desegregation crisis. Afterward, those in attendance agreed to meet again and bring friends to what they decided to call the Political Animals Club.

At first, the Political Animals Club’s membership was limited to people who were not running for or holding elective office. When Rutherford announced in 1987 that he was going to run for the Little Rock School Board, he stepped down as club chairman. The Political Animals Club had moved its meetings from the Coachman’s Inn to the Little Rock Hilton (now the Clarion) on University Avenue by that time. Jernigan took over as the second chairman in 1987 and was succeeded by his law partner, Russ Meeks.

The fourth Political Animals chairman was Bob Lyford, who was the general counsel for the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. During Lyford’s tenure, the club often held its 7 a.m. breakfast meetings in the ornate conference room at the AECC headquarters in southwest Little Rock. In January 2007, Lyford handed over the chairmanship to Steve Ronnel, a Little Rock businessman who had worked in the White House during the Clinton administration. Ronnel switched the meeting times from breakfast to lunch as people’s habits changed and fewer people wanted to show up at 7 a.m.

The Coachman’s has long since been replaced by downtown’s Capital Hotel (also owned by the Stephens family) as the breakfast gathering spot of choice for lobbyists who are looking for something a bit fancier than the basement of the state Capitol. Most mornings now find several tables at the Capital Hotel filled with lobbyists and legislators (who presumably are paying for their own meals).

Though breakfast meetings of the Political Animals Club are now a rarity, there are smaller breakfast groups that meet on a regular basis to talk politics. Rutherford is a member of two such groups. One group began meeting in 1991 at a now-defunct downtown Little Rock restaurant known as Hungry’s. The group later met in North Little Rock at Roy Fisher’s Steak House, also now defunct.

For years, Fisher’s waitress Mary Daniell, who died in February 2011 at age 71, would trade good-natured insults with a group whose regulars included Rutherford, then-state Sen. Bill Gwatney, former Little Rock bank executive Gene Fortson and longtime North Little Rock political gadfly Walter “Bubba” Lloyd Jr.

Members of the group and even the waitress would tease Gwatney because of his family money, especially when he would order a staple of the Fisher’s breakfast menu known as “the working man’s breakfast.”

“That’s as close as you’ll ever come to being a working man,” Daniell would tell the automobile dealer.

Gwatney was the chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party in the summer of 2008 when he was murdered at state party headquarters by a lone gunman, who was killed later in the day during a shootout with the police. No reason for the murder was ever discovered.

Soon afterward, Rutherford said of the breakfast group: “We had no regular schedule. It was just when somebody sent a notice out. It was always a long breakfast, talking about politics, sports, current issues. Those conversations were great because Gwatney would unload on any issue. Politics was a common ground. When I was state party chairman, I used to say in speeches that my best achievement was making sure Bill Gwatney ran as a Democrat and won as a Democrat.”

After taking a break following Gwatney’s death, the group began meeting again. The members now gather at the Red Door at the foot of Cantrell Hill in Little Rock.

Rutherford also is a member of a Saturday group organized by Little Rock businessmen Bill Booker and Graham Catlett.

“Bill and I began having brunch on Saturdays at Buster’s in the early 1980s,” Catlett says. “We later began meeting at Copper Grill at 8 a.m. each Saturday, and the group grew. Our meeting places move seasonally.”

One of the regulars is Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola.

“By 9 a.m., all the world’s problems are solved,” Catlett says.

Bumpers: A senator remembered

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

He never saw me walk into the back of the room.

It was a Thursday afternoon in the late 1980s, and U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers from Arkansas was addressing a group of small business owners at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington.

I was the Washington correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat at the time. It must have been a slow news day (which was rare on the Washington beat) because this wasn’t a major speech by any means. And I wasn’t trying to hide my presence. It’s just that I walked in late, and the senator didn’t see me.

Bumpers was one of the best orators to ever come our way. He knew how to play to an audience.

He would pace.

He would wave his arms.

The former Methodist Sunday school teacher from Charleston would have been an effective evangelist had he chosen to follow that path.

Bumpers said this to his audience: “I know you will find this hard to believe coming from the senior senator from Arkansas, but Wal-Mart has been responsible for killing more small businesses that anything that ever came along.”

I was taking notes.

The staff member accompanying Bumpers was Bill Massey, a Malvern native who later was appointed by President Clinton to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Massey’s head turned as he walked from the room at the end of the speech. He had seen me with my notebook.

Bumpers and Massey were headed to National Airport to catch a flight home to Arkansas.

I worked out of where I lived in those days — the basement of a townhouse on Capitol Hill — and walked back there to file my story.

Imagine that: An elected official from Arkansas criticizing Wal-Mart. The newspaper war between the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette had heated up. The Gazette correspondent wasn’t at the speech, and I had no doubt that my story would play on the front page of the Democrat the next morning since it was exclusive.

I had two phones on my desk — a business phone and a personal phone. The business phone rang as soon as I sat down, and I knew who it was.

Arkansas Democrat Washington bureau,” I answered.

“Rex, it’s Bill. The senator would like to speak to you,” Massey said.

“I bet he would,” I replied, a bit sarcastically.

The next thing I heard was the familiar voice of Dale Leon Bumpers.

“Rex, you know good and well that I never would have said what I did to those folks had I known you were in the room,” he said.

I replied: “I know that senator. But I was in the room. It was an open event, and you were on the record.”

He said: “Well, all I can do is ask you as a personal favor not to put that in tomorrow’s paper. If you do, I’ll live with the consequences since I said it.”

I had to make a decision.

I wonder to this day if I made the right one.

Here’s what I told him: “Senator, I’ve not yet mentioned this to my editor. We’re the only ones who know about this. If I don’t write it, I’m giving up a front-page story. The only way I can justify doing that in my mind is if I were to get two or three front-page stories in the future that the Gazette doesn’t get.”

Bumpers replied: “You have my word on it.”

I never wrote the story that day.

During the next few months, Bumpers’ office leaked me several stories that received front-page play.

It’s important to understand that Dale Bumpers had no reason to like the Arkansas Democrat, which had consistently been critical of him on its editorial page. But he was true to his word.

In that era before cell phones and the Internet, we did what I call shoe-leather reporting. I was in all six offices of the Arkansas congressional delegation on a daily basis, checking to see if there were news stories I needed to write. My favorite days were those in which one of our state’s two senators — Dale Bumpers or David Pryor — would invite me into their offices and simply tell off-the-record stories. I loved Arkansas history and politics (still do) and could listen to them for hours.

This will sound strange coming from a fellow who would go on to work for a Republican governor and a Republican president, but I likely became too close to the two Democratic senators from Arkansas. When I left Washington after four years on the beat, it was time for a new reporter who could be more objective when it came to Bumpers and Pryor. I still felt I could ask the tough questions when I needed to do so, but my fondness for both men had grown through the years.

One of the best compliments I ever received came one day while sitting in Bumpers’ office in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. He said to me: “There are only about two reporters I’ve ever been around with whom I felt I could be myself. You’re one of them.”

This former Marine knew he could tell me the latest joke or inside story. Off the record meant off the record.

Dale Bumpers came close several times to seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. I still wonder what would have happened had he run.

The first time was in 1976. Bumpers was in his second year in the Senate. Who knows? Dale Bumpers rather than Jimmy Carter might have been the young president from the South had the Arkansan chosen to run that year.

The last time was the 1988 election cycle. It was early 1987, and Bumpers was giving every indication that he would run.

I vividly remember taking the train from Union Station in Washington to Penn Station in New York with Bumpers’ press secretary, Matt James, to cover what was being billed as a major foreign policy address at Columbia University. Earlier that day, Bumpers had met with potential donors in New York and received millions of dollars in commitments.

Before we took a late-night train back to Washington, I filed two stories — one about the meeting with donors and one on the foreign policy speech. The announcement that he would run for president seemed like a mere formality at that point.

John Robert Starr, the Democrat’s mercurial managing editor, told me that I would cover the Bumpers presidential campaign on a daily basis. At my current age of 56, I can’t think of anything much worse than spending the winter in Iowa and New Hampshire. At age 27, however, I couldn’t wait to be one of the “boys on the bus.”

Everything changed on a Friday night that spring.

James had a leading role in a community theater presentation on Capitol Hill. He was about to leave the office for opening night when Bumpers walked by his desk, handed him a sheet of paper and said, “Get this out to the media.”

It was a short statement, explaining why he would not seek the Democratic presidential nomination.

I missed the story that night, but at least I had a good excuse.

Starr was in nearby Reston, Va., for a conference at the American Press Institute. He loved Mexican food and had called me earlier in the day.

“I know you have a favorite Mexican place you could take me for dinner,” he said. “Pick me up at 6 p.m. and we’ll go eat.”

As noted, this was the era before cell phones. No one back at the newsroom in Little Rock could find me. Meredith Oakley wound up doing the story from Little Rock since the Washington correspondent was out eating Mexican food with the boss.

After our dinner, I met some friends who were bank examiners from Arkansas. They were in town for training and had rented a hotel suite. I fell asleep on their couch while watching the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

I didn’t return to my place on Capitol Hill until the next morning. My answering machine was filled with messages from editors back in Little Rock. Whatever had happened that Friday, it was too late for me to do anything about it.

I had picked up my Washington Post outside but failed to open it. I got into the shower. As I got out, the phone was ringing. It was Don Johnson, the Sunday editor.

“Are you planning a follow-up story?” he asked.

“A follow-up story on what?” I replied.

When he told me what had happened the night before, I panicked.

I immediately called the Bumpers home (I always thought the senator lived on the best street possible for a politician — Honesty Way in Bethesda, Md.), and Betty Bumpers answered.

Here’s how the conversation went:

“Mrs. Bumpers, this is Rex Nelson from the Arkansas Democrat. Is the senator home?

“No, he left about an hour ago.”

“Do you know where he went?”

“I think he might have gone to the office.”

“Do you know when he will return?”

“No, he didn’t say.”

“Please let him know I’m looking for him if he comes home.”

Since she thought he might be at the office, I sprinted the 12 blocks from my place to the Dirksen Senate Office Building. In those days, the photo IDs that congressional correspondents wore around our necks gave us access to the buildings at any hour. I went to the private door that led into Bumpers’ office and knocked.

No answer.

In desperation, I got down on the floor and peered through the crack at the bottom of the door to see if I could see anyone.

Then, I sprinted back to my place and again called the Bumpers’ home.

“Mrs. Bumpers, this is Rex Nelson again. I went to the office, and the senator wasn’t there. Has he come home yet?

“No, he hasn’t.”

“Do you have any idea when he might?”

“No, I don’t.”

As a last resort, I said this: “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions.”

Betty Bumpers had no reason to talk with me on the record that day. Yet she did. She told of how the senator had been restless for weeks and was no longer sleeping well. She told me that she would have supported his decision regardless, but she finally had put her foot down and said: “Dale, you need to go ahead and make a decision one way or another.”

I hung up the phone and wrote the story. The Democrat ran it on the front page the next morning.

On Monday, Starr called, praising me for having an angle the Gazette hadn’t thought of.

If only he had known the full story.

By the fall of 1992, I had returned to Little Rock and was the political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (the Gazette had ceased publication in October 1991). With the Clinton presidential race dominating our coverage, I decided to give the Senate race between Bumpers and Mike Huckabee some attention. I would spend two days on the road with each of the two candidates (who could have dreamed that I would wind up working almost a decade with Huckabee in the governor’s office?) and write long stories on each campaign for the Sunday edition.

My two-day trip with Bumpers ended with an evening event in Camden. We were flying back to Little Rock from Ouachita County on a small plane late that night when I asked my final on-the-record question.

“Senator, something you used against J. William Fulbright when you beat him in 1974 was the accusation that he was out of touch with Arkansas; that he had become a part of the East Coast establishment. Let me ask you: Had you rather be at a fish fry in Camden or at a dinner party at Pamela Harriman’s townhouse in Georgetown?”

Harriman, who died in 1997, was an English-born socialite whose first husband was the son of Winston Churchill. Her third husband, beginning in 1971, was the well-known American diplomat, politician and businessman Averell Harriman. She became an American citizen the year she married Harriman (1971) and also became a key fundraiser for the Democratic Party. The dinner parties she threw at her Georgetown townhouse were the stuff of legend. Bill Clinton appointed her as the U.S. ambassador to France in 1993 and she held the title until her death in 1997. Clinton dispatched Air Force One to bring her body back to the United States and spoke at her funeral.

Bumpers looked at me when I asked the question and smiled his famous smile: “Oh hell, Rex, you know how I have to answer that.”

The thing is, he was at home at the toniest events in Washington and the most down-home events in Arkansas that you can imagine.

I can’t count the number of times I saw him speak to a civic club in Arkansas when the members would start the meeting mad about his vote on some issue. After about 20 minutes, those club members would be laughing and smiling. He had them eating out of the palm of his hand.

The Bumpers charisma isn’t easy to put into words. You had to experience it.

It was my great fortune to cover him as a newspaper reporter for several years, experiencing the magic on a daily basis.

We’ll never see another one quite like him.

Mr. Chairman: Congressman Wilbur D. Mills

Monday, March 18th, 2013

I didn’t want to move to Washington, D.C., in 1986.

Even though I was only 26 years old at the time, I was the No. 2 person in the sports department at the Arkansas Democrat and enjoying my work.

A Monday morning call from the newspaper’s mercurial managing editor, John Robert Starr, changed my life.

If you work in a newspaper sports department, the chances are that you work on weekends. That’s when the action occurs.

My days off back then were Mondays and Tuesdays. I was sleeping late on a Monday morning when the phone in my Brightwaters apartment rang.

I was jolted awake by the voice of Bob Starr. If Starr were calling me at home on a Monday morning, I figured we must have made a huge mistake in that morning’s sports section.

“Why haven’t you applied for the Washington job?” he asked almost immediately.

“Because I don’t want to move to Washington,” I replied.

“Well, you need to apply and go through the motions because I’ve already decided you’re going,” Starr said.

If you worked at the Democrat for Bob Starr, you knew better than to question him.

Within days, I was on a flight to Washington. I slept on the couch in my predecessor Damon Thompson’s Capitol Hill apartment while looking for a place of my own to live. I would wind up in the basement of a Capitol Hill townhouse for the next four years.

A few days after my return to Little Rock, I had packed my Oldsmobile Cutlass and was making the 1,100-mile trip on Interstate 40, Interstate 81 and Interstate 66 to the nation’s capital.

I was scared to death.

The newspaper war between the Arkansas Gazette and the Democrat was heating up, and you weren’t supposed to get scooped on your beat. Starr wrote scathing daily critiques for the whole staff to read, identifying those reporters he felt had been outworked by the competition. I would be going up against a veteran Gazette Washington correspondent, Carol Matlack. And I was coming from a sports department, not from a government and political beat.

The big story in Washington at the time was the development of the Tax Reform Act of 1986. I figured a natural angle for an Arkansas newspaper to take would be to talk to former Congressman Wilbur D. Mills from Kensett, who had written much of the tax code.

Even though he had been gone from Congress for almost a decade, Mills still went to his office each day at a K Street law firm. I set up an appointment with him.

I vividly remember walking in and looking at the wooden nameplate on the front of his desk that simply said “Mr. Chairman.”

I began asking questions. He was cordial but not overly friendly. One of the things I love about this small state of Arkansas is the fact that there’s, at most, two degrees of separation. Thus I decided to mention my maternal grandfather, who had died in 1980 at age 96. My grandfather had been the Prairie County judge at the time Mills had vaulted from the position of White County judge to Congress.

White and Prairie are adjoining counties.

“Mr. Chairman, I believe you knew my grandfather,” I said.

“Who was your grandfather, son?” he replied.

“W.J. Caskey of Des Arc,” I said.

Mills’ face lit up as he began to smile.

“Good Lord, son, if it had not been for the votes that Will Caskey delivered me in Prairie County the first time I ran for Congress in 1938, I might not have been elected,” he said.

Whether or not the story was true, I knew better than to ask the meaning of the word “delivered.”

I can tell you this: From then on, Mills treated me more like a long-lost relative than a newspaper reporter. Anytime I had a question, he would take my call. He didn’t want to be quoted by name, but I could always attribute his background quotes to “someone close to the tax negotiations.”

Little did my readers or the Gazette correspondent know that my source was one of the most powerful people ever to serve in the U.S. Congress.

Kay Goss was making the rounds in Little Rock last week. She spoke to a luncheon meeting of the Political Animals Club at the Governor’s Mansion on Tuesday and spoke the following evening at the Clinton School of Public Service.

She’s promoting her new book, “Mr. Chairman: The Life and Legacy of Wilbur D. Mills,” which recently was released by Parkhurst Brothers of Little Rock. It’s high time that someone wrote a book on Mills, and Goss was just the person to do it. She first met the congressman when she was teaching at the University of Arkansas. While completing her doctoral studies, she worked for then-Congressman Ray Thornton and watched Mills and his staff in action. In fact, she married his chief of staff, the late Gene Goss.

Among those in attendance at last Tuesday’s Political Animals Club meeting was former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, who replaced Mills in Congress in 1977 (and whose grandfather was the incumbent Mills defeated when he first was elected White County judge).

“Kay has special and personal knowledge of Wilbur Mills, both the Chairman and the simply human,” Tucker writes. “She shares it with us wonderfully. Mr. Mills provided steady help and hope for ordinary working Americans and for those in need beginning in 1934 with what was, in effect, a ‘county Medicaid’ program while serving as county judge in White County. There was later the massive strengthening of Social Security and the creation of Medicare and Medicaid. … His good deeds live on in the memories of those who watched and in the lives of those receiving these services today.”

Goss, the former teacher with a keen sense of American history, writes: “The power of Congress has swung like a pendulum through the centuries. The peak of presidential power under Abraham Lincoln was followed by a surge of congressional power after his assassination, causing Woodrow Wilson, a political scientist at the time, before becoming governor of New Jersey and later president, to write in his book ‘Congressional Government’ that congressional committees were ‘lord proprietors.’ However, during the personality cults of the 20th century (Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt), Congress was weak and overshadowed.

“After Roosevelt’s passing and the passage of the Legislative Reform Act of 1946, Congress began regaining power. At this time, Mills was a rising star in Congress and a few years from becoming Ways and Means chairman. He was a part of a new generation in Congress, 40 years younger than Robert Doughton of North Carolina, the chairman of Ways and Means at the time, and compiling the second-longest tenure.

“The power of Congress increased until the congressional reform acts of the 1970s. Thus Mills was a congressional legend while I was a student at the University of Arkansas, pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science and history, doctoral studies at West Virginia University and teaching public administration and political science at three of Arkansas’ institutions of higher education.”

Former Sen. Dale Bumpers notes that Goss doesn’t ignore Mills’ alcoholism and the personal scandals of his later years.

“The challenges Wilbur Mills faced as he slipped into the disease of alchoholism and resulting controversy are dealt with forthrightly here, rekindling the reaction in the public’s mind during those difficult months,” Bumpers writes. “Unfortunately, Mills’ late-career difficulties dimmed the remembrance of some of his major achievements. … Kay Goss has deftly weighed Mills’ character and shown the complexity that was Wilbur Mills. She lets his example show that no matter how high a person goes, how much he or she achieves, it is possible to fall and then to recover magnificently as Mills did when he went on to help others who suffer from addictions.”

Former Sen. David Pryor remembers that “only a handful of members of the House and Senate called him Wilbur. To most of us, he was Mr. Chairman. No legislative tactician grew to understand better or in more detail the myriad complexities of the federal government, especially our country’s tax code. … In addition, his enormous impact on health programs, most notably Medicare, and social issues remains a hallmark of his service.

“The tremendous respect Chairman Mills enjoyed among his colleagues in the House translated into support from both Democrats and Republicans. It was said that during his years chairing the House Ways and Means Committee, a roll-call vote was needless, as the chairman governed his committee by reason and ultimately consensus.”

After leaving Congress, Mills said: “There was a time when I felt that I couldn’t make a mistake. If I did, the country would go to rack and ruin. I was making myself a god. Human beings make mistakes, but I thought I couldn’t make a mistake. Therefore I didn’t let myself be a human being. That kind of internal pressure is more than the human system can sustain. Here I was doing it to myself consistently. .. I used to be lonesome all the time, even among 10,000 people. I don’t remember any time when I didn’t feel lonesome.”

Goss writes that when the words Mr. Chairman were spoken in Washington, “everyone from the president to the newest elevator operator knew the reference meant Wilbur Mills. He had a personal network of influence in the House.”

But when asked about giving up that power, Mills later told The Daily Citizen at Searcy: “I enjoy life more now. It’s just great to be a human being. In the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, I was more of a machine than a man.”

In “Mr. Chairman,” Kay Goss probes both the reasons for his greatness and his human frailties.

Speaker Carter and change in Arkansas

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

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?

Election thoughts

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

There’s not a person alive in Arkansas who knows what it’s like to have Republicans in control of the Legislature.

Now, we will all learn together.

Regardless of what side of the political fence you’re on, Tuesday’s election was historic in our state. After trailing the rest of the South in going red, Arkansas will join the region with a Legislature in which Republicans have a solid majority in the Senate and a slight majority in the House.

The last time Republicans controlled either house of the Arkansas Legislature was during Reconstruction — a special session in 1874 to be exact.

The political tidal wave began to roll across Arkansas two years ago when the GOP captured every contested state Senate seat along with three of the seven statewide constitutional offices — lieutenant governor, secretary of state and land commissioner.

On that same election day in 2010, Republican John Boozman defeated incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, and Rick Crawford became the first Republican since Reconstruction to win in the 1st Congressional District of east Arkansas.

In the state Senate, what had been a heavily Democratic body suddenly saw Democrats with only a 20-15 majority after that 2010 election.

The Democratic House majority was just 55-45.

For two years after that election, political insiders noted that the GOP was in position to take control of one or both houses of the Legislature in the 2012 election. So in the context of the expecations coming into this week, what happened Tuesday night was not unexpected.

Over the course of two elections, though, the pace of political change in our state is breathtaking.

Will Republicans solidify their new position in Arkansas politics and make this a long-term trend?

I suspect so. I say that with a few caveats. First, the GOP must make sure its nominees are respected business and civic leaders, officeholders such as Rep. Davy Carter of Cabot and Rep. Matthew Shepherd of El Dorado. Extremists can and will taint the party brand. The widespread publicity given the comments of some Republican House candidates this year made the margin in the House closer than it otherwise would have been.

Arkansans are conservative for the most part, but they’re not extremists.

Nationally, much is being written today about where the Republican Party goes from here.

This I agree with (and remember I worked in both a Republican gubernatorial and presidential administration): The GOP must be more than the party of angry old white men. I’m an old white man, but I’m not angry. I’m pragmatic — pragmatic enough to realize that if the typical Republican comes to resemble the kind of folks who, say, call in on a regular basis to KARN-FM to complain, the party is doomed to permanent minority status at the Washington level.

Consider some facts:

George W. Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004.

John McCain won 31 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008.

Mitt Romney, who pandered shamelessly to the anti-immigration crowd in the GOP primaries of both 2008 and 2012, received just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote Tuesday.

You can see the trend.

The percentage of the U.S. population that is all or partially Hispanic (a percentage that includes my wife and two sons) is growing rapidly while the percentage of Hispanics voting for Republicans is declining.

That’s a recipe for political disaster down the line.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who could be the GOP presidential nominee in 2016, told Politico: “The conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it, and Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them.”

Politico’s Jonathan Martin writes: “Republicans face a crisis. The country is growing less white, and their coalition has become more white in recent years. But the GOP’s problem is more fundamental than one bloc of voters. For the second consecutive presidential election, the Republicans got thumped among women and young voters in the states that decided the election.”

Martin uses the battleground state of Florida as an example. There are 190,000 more Hispanics and 50,000 more blacks in that state than there were in 2008. In Osceola County, a suburb of Orlando with a heavy Hispanic population, the Obama margin grew from 20 percentage points in 2008 to 25 percentage points this year.

Al Cardenas, the head of the American Conservative Union, said party leaders must figure out that the GOP is “too old and too white and too male and it needs to figure out how to catch up with the demographics of the country before it’s too late.”

Former Bush political director Matt Schlapp told Politico: “Hispanics continue to grow in importance, and we need to embrace these voters for two reasons: It is simply the right thing to do, and it’s mandatory demographically if we are to avoid more presidential disappointments. It’s about simple math and basic moral decency.”

Basic moral decency. It’s something unfortunately that some Americans seem to be lacking.

Here’s where the Arkansas GOP could be a national bellwether for the party should it choose to do so. You see, the first Republican governor of Arkansas since Reconstruction was Winthrop Rockefeller from 1967-71. It was Rockefeller who brought blacks into the state’s political system and began breaking down the segregationist policies of 1960s Democrats.

Older blacks in Arkansas remember that heritage. Even those who don’t remember it have heard their parents and grandparents talk about it.

In 1998 and 2002, Gov. Mike Huckabee and Lt. Gov. Win Paul Rockefeller worked hard for the black vote and attracted a sizable portion of it.

Because of the Winthrop Rockefeller legacy in this state and the good will it generated, Arkansas Republicans have a unique opportunity to craft an outreach effort to black and Hispanic voters.

Here are the key questions: Do they have the courage to do so; the courage to ignore the angry old white men who call the radio talk shows and write letters to the editor? Will they stand up to the bigots as Win Rockefeller once did? Will they tune out the heated TEA rhetoric and do what’s right?

Will the Carters, the Shepherds and other rising stars prevail or will the extremists in the party prevail?

This will determine if this Republican majority in Arkansas is the norm or just a blip in our state’s history.

In a state that for so long was controlled by Democrats, wouldn’t it be interesting if the Arkansas Republican Party were to capitalize on its Winthrop Rockefeller tradition and in the process show the national Republican Party the road to majority status?