Arkansas political leaders note ‘degrees of divisiveness’

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 88 views 

Terry Rice and Uvalde Lindsey may soon be on opposite ends of a more divisive political arena come January, but both say they don’t want Little Rock politics to morph into the gridlock common in Washington D.C.

Rice is the State Representative from Waldron. The Republican represents House District 21, a wide and narrow swath of territory that tips up into Sebastian County on the northwestern side, and travels down through large swaths of densely forested, rural areas to end with the inclusion of beautiful Lake Ouachita on the southeastern tip.

And if the Arkansas Republicans do the once unthinkable but now very likely and gain a majority in the House of Representatives, the low-key Rep. Rice could be the Speaker of the House — one of the most powerful political posts in the Natural State.

Although politics are nothing new to Rice. His father, W.R. “Bud” Rice, was a long-time (18 years) political player — as a Democrat — in the Arkansas Legislature in the days before term limits.

On the other side of the coin, politically and geographically, is Lindsey, the Democratic Representative from Fayetteville who was unchallenged by Republicans for the newly formed Arkansas Senate District 4.

The Senate District is essentially the heart of Razorback headquarters. It contains the University of Arkansas, most of Fayetteville, Farmington, Greenland and the western terminus of the Pig Trail (Arkansas 16). It is urban, smart and hip; a mix of the Dickson Street party culture and the globally watched entrepreneurial enterprises emerging from any number of partnerships between investors, innovators and employees of the University of Arkansas.

Lindsey, who will be a freshman Senator come January, is not in line for a powerful political position. However, Lindsey comes to the job being no stranger to power and politics.

He and his late wife, Carol, were often referred to as the brains behind a powerful Northwest Arkansas Council that took the lead in building the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport and Interstate 540 between Alma and Fayetteville — although his humility would within a short sentence reject such praise and deflect all credit elsewhere. Don’t buy into his humility. Lindsey’s quick dial connections most likely include people named Walton, Clinton, Hunt, Tyson and so on and so forth.

Rice and Lindsey will in January be tossed Into a spicy soup of politics recipe’d up by numerous chefs who are catering to wildly different citizen demands.

Here’s the thing: It’s been roughly 140 years since Republicans had any meaningful influence in the Arkansas Legislature. Not even the Cubs have a longer losing streak.

That political monopoly, at least in the Arkansas House, is more than likely over in January. The Arkansas legislature now has the smallest margin of Democratic rule since Reconstruction. House Democrats outnumber Republicans 54-46, while the State Senate has a 20-15 Democratic advantage.

Arkansas Republicans believe they are in position to capture both houses in the 2012 election cycle. To gain 5 new seats in the House and just 3 in the Senate would give Republicans control of both chambers for the first time in modern political history.

Feeding the shift in power is a deepening divide between liberals and conservatives, fueled in large part by voter frustration with a dysfunctional Congress, pervasive economic malaise and a Democratic President who is out of touch even with most Democrats in Arkansas.

“My confidence level is that this is the first time in almost 140 years to have the opportunity, a very good opportunity, to take control in the House and the Senate,” Rice said Wednesday when asked about the political picture following the May 22 primary elections.

“More than 50,” Rice said with a laugh when pressed on a prediction of how many House seats Republicans will control in the next General Assembly.

Swinging the votes won’t be easy. Rice said Arkansas Democrats have learned a lot since the surprising 2010 election cycle in which even Democrats at county levels were voted out of office as a way to send a message to Washington.

“We can get that (majority), but it will take a lot of hard work. Last time (2010 election cycle), the other party was taken a little off guard, but I think in this election they will be on their game,” Rice said. “We will have to work hard, but I think we have the right candidates with the right message.”

The “right” message may be hard to manage for Rice, who has risen to leadership within his own party for his calm and moderating influence.

But moderation has not proven popular with Arkansas Republicans. To wit, Sen. Bill Pritchard, R-Elkins, and Rep. Tim Summers, R-Bentonville, were both ousted in the primary election after facing well-financed charges that they were not conservative enough.

Former Rep. Rick Green, R-Van Buren, was handicapped in his primary race against Sen. Bruce Holland, R-Greenwood, because he had worked too closely with former Democratic House Speaker Robbie Wills. Green, noted for delivering more than $350,000 to help the Fort Smith-Van Buren area develop an intermodal plan, lost the race to Holland, who remains best remembered for his culpability in a high-speed police chase through at least two counties between Little Rock and Greenwood.

The primary folly — no pun intended — of Pritchard and Summers was that they supported a tobacco tax increase plan that has delivered a multi-million dollar health care campus (University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences) and hundreds of good-paying jobs to Northwest Arkansas. Nevermind that less than 25% of the Arkansans who smoke will pay the tax, or that the deal delivered a huge investment to Northwest Arkansas or that the tax deal created a statewide trauma system that is already proven to be a life saver. The political point is that Pritchard and Summers worked with Democrat Gov. Mike Beebe and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate to approve the tax-increase package.

Rice, in the interview with The City Wire, acknowledged his likely challenge in dealing with incoming Republicans who believe they have a clear mandate to reverse more than 140 years of Democratic rule.

“While I feel like I can be as open-minded as that job (Speaker) requires … and that moderating voice, there is still going to be political divides and hopefully after the election we can put those things behind us and move forward,” Rice said.

Lindsey noted it “will be a challenge” for the leaders of the Arkansas Legislature to deal Republicans who view the opportunity to impose some historical vengeance.

“Whatever happens, I think it’s incumbent upon all of us elected officials to think back again to the bedrock of where we come from. Factions are important in elections, but we are all elected to serve the best interests and the will of everybody, of all the people,” Lindsey said. “I don’t think we are elected to a state office to replicate the gridlock of Congress.”

Without being asked, Lindsey admitted maybe he was too optimistic. He said he witnessed “degrees of divisiveness” in the 2012 primary election legislative races “that were possibly unparalleled” in Arkansas history.

Rice, again, no stranger to Arkansas’ Legislative history, spoke of the historical sensitivity and the “the balancing act” of a House Speaker in working with both parties. But he did not shy away from explaining that such a position comes with the responsibility to ensure political strength.

“I will be working and active in helping elect Republican candidates. And we have a message. The people want a more efficient government, and I use a term that people want a smaller and smarter government. I think you see that also in the nation. The people are very, very frustrated with what they see, and I think that’s true right here in Arkansas,” Rice said.

The message from Republicans is clearly one of smaller government.

Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, and the Republican caucus leader in the House, said the primary election was another step toward conservative rule in Arkansas.

“Conservatives in Arkansas have taken another big step toward establishing a new conservative majority in the House of Representatives that will fight for hardworking Arkansas taxpayers by bringing increased transparency and oversight to state government,” Westerman noted in a statement. “I congratulate the Republican nominees and look forward to the day we welcome them to the House as members to elect a Republican Speaker of the House and sweep away the 138-year status quo of one-party rule in the Arkansas General Assembly.”

Republicans have also promoted a “SIMPLE plan” in their pursuit of Legislative control. The SIMPLE plan prescribes:
Spending restraint;
Income and other tax reform;
Medicaid Sustainability;
Protecting Arkansas’ future;
Legal and regulatory reform; and,
Educational excellence.

But Republicans have a huge number to surpass if they want to cut taxes more than has Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe.

Beebe has managed to remain historically popular in a state in which popular Democrats are as hard to find as the Ivory-billed woodpecker. He is also the author of the plan that has reduced the sales tax on food from 6% to 1.5% and saved Arkansas taxpayers more than $794 million — the state’s largest ever tax decrease.

More specifically, during Beebe’s five and a half years in the Governor’s office, the state has seen $1.26 billion in tax cuts and $530 million in tax increases — a $730 million net reduction in taxes. Of the tax increases, almost $400 million has come from the tobacco tax and severance tax hikes.

Matt DeCample, spokesman for Beebe, was quick to point out that a majority of Arkansans don’t pay tobacco or severance taxes.

Lindsey, ever the realist, suggested that the “extreme sectors of both sides” must agree to consider the intended and unintended consequences of all actions.

“No matter whether you are an R or a D, we can almost all agree that government is a little too big,” Lindsey said, but added that all parties should remember that “government has a responsibility to do those things that advance the basic desire and needs of people that they cannot do themselves.”

“We have to keep them in mind. … We have to take care of the most fragile members of our society,” Lindsey said.

But will the energy of a political party in control for the first time in about 140 years result in an holistic consideration of the role of government?

“It will require a civil dialogue. Will we be able to get that? I don’t know,” Lindsey said.