Gov. Beebe says Arkansas leaders can heal political divides, work together and avoid ‘petty jealousies’

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 833 views 

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe. (Photo courtesy Winthrop Rockefeller Institute).

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe (D) on Thursday challenged a group of business leaders from Central and Northwest Arkansas to “accept the responsibility of leadership” if they want to be part of healing geographic and political divisions in Arkansas and the country.

Beebe made his remarks as part of the “Under 40 Forum” held Thursday and Friday at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute on Petit Jean Mountain. The event was conducted by the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute and the Clinton School of Public Service. The forum brought together the most recent “40 under 40” class members selected by the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal and Arkansas Business in central Arkansas.

The focus of the forum is “Fractured Arkansas.”

“We will focus on the increasing challenges of our geographic, political, economic divergence and look for ways to bring our state closer together,” noted the program for the forum.

Beebe, who spoke during Thursday’s luncheon, said political and business leaders should avoid  hyper-competition and jealousy between regions in the state. He said success and progress in any part of the state should be celebrated because it helps the entire state. Likewise, hard economic times in other parts of the state should be a concern for all, because troubles there can prevent the state from enjoying greater overall success.

That theme was carried to an afternoon work session with the “40 under 40” class members. Rex Nelson, director of corporate communications for Pine Bluff-based Simmons Bank and a forum panelist, said there are “two states within a state” as it relates to economic and population growth. He said, for example, people in Northwest Arkansas should “not begrudge the help” they give other parts of the state.

“I really think that is the issue going forward,” Nelson said, referring to what will drive state budgets and policy.

Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public and also a forum panelist, was more pointed about the fracture, noting that Arkansas’ problem is not a population shift issue, but a “neglect problem.” He said there are a growing number of Arkansans who don’t have access to healthcare, good grocery stores and financial services.

“Our issue is that we have a vast majority of counties that are slowly but surely being neglected,” Rutherford said, adding later, “Prairie County in Arkansas doesn’t have a doctor.”

Rutherford said it is “pretty silly” to debate about how many football games should be played in Little Rock, when state leaders should instead ask why Prairie County doesn’t have a single local physician.

During his luncheon remarks, Beebe said the state’s challenges can be addressed “from people just like you who accept the responsibility of leadership.” He added that there is not a problem in Arkansas or the U.S. that can’t be solved when good people come together.

“It’s incumbent on you to make a difference, and it’s incumbent on you to assume that mantle of leadership,” Beebe said.

However, Beebe also encouraged them to not lose their competitive regional spirits, but find a balance between competition and collaboration.

“(K)eep a competitive spirit with the ability to work together and put aside petty jealousies,” he advised.

Beebe also lamented the U.S. political environment, especially following the presidential election.

“A (political) division permeates the problems in our country, as manifest by what we are seeing right now in Washington, D.C.,” Beebe said.

Surprisingly, he placed much of the blame for the “growing rancor” on decades of Congressional redistricting in the states to protect a Democrat or Republican. He said the gerrymandering has resulted in sending extremists to Washington instead of people willing or able to work in the “soft mushy middle” of the political spectrum in which compromise and progress happens that help people instead of political parties.

“We have gerrymandered our way out of the middle,” Beebe said.

Forum participants spent the remainder of Thursday and were set to spend Friday morning addressing topics raised by Beebe, Nelson, Rutherford, and issues they brought to the forum. Their findings and possible solutions will be packaged in a report and delivered to the Arkansas Governor, all state legislators, state agency directors and various leadership groups around the state.