Columns » Warwick Sabin

A morality play (for votes)

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We have been subjected to tortured deliberations about “moral issues” since the November elections, with morality defined strictly in terms of the conservative social agenda: anti-abortion rights, anti-homosexual rights, and the further erosion of the separation of church and state (an effort to urge public schools to teach creationism alongside evolution is the most recent front opened in that arena). However, the intersection of morality and public policy is often difficult to navigate, as the case of Arkansas Republican Party Chairman Gilbert Baker clearly illustrates. Baker is also a state senator from Conway, where the city leadership is actively lobbying for less restrictive alcohol laws. The mayor and economic development officials there believe that Conway’s location in a dry county is inhibiting its ability to attract businesses and residents, and they advocated in behalf of a restaurant that was the first to receive a license to serve liquor by the drink. So these community leaders were very upset when Baker last month wrote a letter to the state Alcohol Beverage Control Commission (ABC) stating his opposition to an application for a similar license filed by another Conway restaurant. “I wrote the letter for two reasons,” Baker says. “The first is the location, because the restaurant is in a neighborhood area and the residents expressed concern. The second is the membership criteria, because it has no exclusivity relating to it. It’s just five-dollar-a-year dues.” Baker went on to say that he personally opposes allowing any additional alcohol in Conway. (“That’s my view as an individual . . . a personal view I have.”) But he says his “official position” as a state senator is to evaluate each application on its merits. Even further, he says that he “supports the right of individuals to vote on important issues,” which includes the question of whether Conway should be wet or dry — or “damp,” by only allowing liquor by the drink. That sounds fair enough. In fact, it sounds a lot like what some elected officials say when they discuss abortion: They personally oppose it, but they respect the law as they exercise their official responsibilities. But that is exactly what makes it complicated for Baker. He needs to publicly placate a vocal, organized group of constituents who see the alcohol issue as a moral crusade in which there can be no compromise. At the same time, he is a practical politician who quietly has been agreeable to the other side. For instance, Baker never declared his opposition to the first private club application filed by a Conway restaurant. Also, in the 2003 legislative session, Baker voted in favor of a bill that did not require private clubs to have minimum annual dues, which calls into question his current quarrel on the basis of “exclusivity.” During that same session, he also supported legislation that protected the names of private club members, which is important in places where citizens may fear the condemnation of their neighbors for daring to drink alcohol. Another notable fact is Baker’s acceptance in his most recent primary campaign of contributions from the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Arkansas, as well as from Bruce Hawkins, a lobbyist who represents the Conway County liquor interests. Of course, there is nothing wrong with taking this money, but it may be news to the Conway moralists whom Baker was presumably representing when he wrote his letter to the ABC. With that in mind, Baker is perhaps the perfect person to lead the state Republican party right now, because his predicament is emblematic of the internal conflicts that will rise to the surface if Asa Hutchinson returns home to challenge Win Rockefeller in a 2006 gubernatorial primary. The party is divided into two traditional constituencies: those motivated by economic interests, and those who care more about social and religious issues (centered mainly in Northwest Arkansas). The latter are louder and demand more unequivocal acquiescence to their agenda, but they don’t always win. In fact, the moderates beat the moralists the last three times they competed for power within the party: the 2001 special election primary for the 3rd District congressional seat, and the two races for party chairman that preceded Baker’s successful run. However, the governor’s race would be the first public statewide battle in that struggle, with Hutchinson likely mobilizing the religious conservatives, and Rockefeller finding support among moderates. Both men will be pressured to adopt the most radical elements of the right-wing social agenda, but they may be well served by following the example of Baker, who so far has walked the tightrope between moralism and pragmatism. The true test is whether he can continue to successfully strike that balance, because dealing with moral absolutists is a tricky business. As one once famously said, you’re either with them, or you’re against them.

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