Riff Raff, by Michael Tilley
The back and forth advertisements from Arkansas gubernatorial hopefuls Asa Hutchinson and Mike Ross often elicit an emotion a more disciplined journalist would not reveal. And that emotion is this: We’re gonna miss Gov. Mike Beebe when he’s gone.
Gov. Beebe has been the state’s top elected official since January 2006. No one – not even this governor and his chief of staff who seem to have an uncanny knack to see further around the corner than the rest of the political class – could have predicted the economic cycle that would challenge Beebe’s administration. Within less than 18 months of Beebe being sworn is as Arkansas 45th governor, the wheels came off the national and Arkansas housing sector. Wall Street would require a bailout. Arkansas’ jobless rate would rise from 5% in January 2006 to 8% by August 2010.
Arkansas’ economic situation has improved, but there are 55,261 fewer employed in the state between January 2006 and May 2014, a troubling 4.29% dip. Arkansas’ jobless rate would hold at or above 7% for 61 months – a majority of Beebe’s time in office.
It’s a credit to his pragmatic political skills that his popularity during such tough times has hovered above 65%. Beebe, by the way, is a Democrat in a state that has all but converted to a red state during his tenure in the top constitutional office. The pragmatism is one of several reasons Beebe remains popular and effective.
The pragmatism allowed Beebe to phase in a reduction in sales tax on groceries. It is the largest tax cut in Arkansas history. His successful solicitation for and judicious use of the Quick Action Closing Fund has been a game changer for Arkansas’ economic development efforts. His tenure in office delivered few surprises. We in the media may find that boring, but boring is the result of few budget, legal and personnel problems. Boring is a product of good management.
Another of the reasons for his ability to govern in a way that appeals to a wide range of Democrats, Republicans and the all-important Independents is his experience on the legislative and executive sides of government. He served in the Arkansas Senate for 20 years, with his last two years as Senate president. He served four years as Arkansas’ Attorney General between his Senate years and his election to the governor’s office.
He was able to muster 20 years of legislative experience because term limits was not in effect until he was more than 12 years in the office. That we now have term limits reduces the chance for another Mike Beebe. Sure, the lack of term limits delivered us a Nick Wilson, but Beebe has done mountains more good than Wilson did bad.
Because Beebe’s politics are center of field and pragmatic, he has been able to govern in a way that has allowed him to out-conservative the inexperienced Republican leadership unaccustomed to having more than a token seat at the table. A Republican legislative leader once said of Beebe: “We’re playing checkers and he’s playing chess.”
Beebe’s life before politics is another reason for his success. Beebe was raised in a single-mother household. They were poor. They were without privilege. He’s the classic story of a poor kid who uses his smarts to elevate his status in life. He made it to law school, and eventually became part of successful law practice. It’s always dangerous to consider intangible motivations, but one might understand a person who came from poverty and, no matter the level of financial and personal success achieved, is always mindful of and running from a life of lack. Those who have never known poverty may never understand the psychological drivers that push some people far beyond previous penniless realities.
A final reason is that Beebe’s political career has been IN Arkansas. His political education was of the rural All Politics Is Local variety. He never spent time in Congress or leading federal bureaucracies. A majority of his political interaction has included Arkansas main street parades, chamber-sponsored golf events, civic club lunches, festivals involving coon suppers and tomatoes and watermelons and peaches. Such events have a high handshakes-to-votes ratio and often a higher handshakes-to-donations ratio.
This is not to suggest that neither Hutchinson or Ross will be good governors. Both are campaigning as conservative centrists, which should be good from the standpoint of fiscal management and providing a check against the theocratic Rapertites of the Arkansas Legislature. Our collective transition away from Beebe will be easier if the 46th governor is capable of keeping Arkansas out of financial, political and court ditches.
A possible chink in Beebe’s legacy armor may be the Private Option. The expansion of Arkansas’ Medicare system using federal dollars funneled through Obamacare has the possibility of being a future budget problem. But with Republicans helping Beebe approve the Private Option plan, his legacy may find cover through the fruits of his fundamental pragmatism.
Another legacy problem for the popular governor may be the aforementioned more than 4% decline in the number of Arkansans with jobs. The debate will center on whether Beebe’s ability to remain wholly focused on education and economic development kept the job decline from being greater.
As governors’ offices become more important to the money behind national political interests, elections for Arkansas’ top constitutional office may become less attainable for Arkansas citizens who rose from poverty, became a student of local Arkansas politics and did not expand their political interests outside of Arkansas.
Beebe will be the last governor produced by pre-term limit Arkansas politics, the state’s unique brand of rural politics and broad experience in Arkansas’ legislative and executive branches. Come a few years or months after January 2015, we may miss the chess game.