FORT SMITH — The friendly woman with the lapel sticker identifying her as representing a local Christian school was, I assumed, a supporter of Asa Hutchinson for governor.
She said maybe I assumed too much.
“But he is,” she said, pointing to the back of a strapping lad in a dark business suit whose lapel sticker, revealed as he turned, declared “Asa Hutchinson Jr.”
“I think you called my dad a progressive,” the young lawyer said with a smile.
I hadn’t meant to do it. In my just completed program to a chamber of commerce breakfast, I had intended only to say that Hutchinson would be the agent of change in this year’s race for governor.
Change and progress aren’t synonyms.
My theme had been that this governor’s race, likely to pit Hutchinson against Attorney General Mike Beebe, would be the most wide open and pivotal, potentially seminal, in the state in 40 years. That’s since 1966, when we chose a course of moderation and pragmatic progress over a demagogic and segregationist past.
This year we either will continue that modern course and style, with Beebe, the Democrat, or choose, with Hutchinson, the Republican, a third way. That would be the modern conservative Republican course that has consumed most of the rest of the South, but from which Arkansas has remained a peculiar island where Democrats can still prevail.
(It had been necessary to this theme to point out that Mike Huckabee, despite his rhetoric and religious conservatism, has been more of a moderate progressive, like modern Democrats, at least in a broad historical context encompassing race and immigration and spending.)
Beebe would be inclined to perpetuate the status quo on public education, meaning the funneling of ever-greater sums to upgrade the teaching profession, fairly vigorous standards enforcement and extensive student testing. Hutchinson would be more responsive to these modern notions of conservative businessmen and their think tanks to provide vouchers for poor kids to enroll in private and parochial schools, relax restrictions on charter schools and set up a system of merit and incentive pay for teachers.
But Arkansas lacks enough private schools to make vouchers work, assuming they ever could. A free-wheeling attitude toward charter schools has led to abuses elsewhere, with kids paying the price. Merit pay would undercut any idea of faculty teamwork while inviting favoritism.
Beebe, a veteran legislator schooled in the state budget, would appreciate the danger of gubernatorial rhetoric about smaller state government and reduced taxes. Hutchinson wouldn’t.
Hutchinson, I suspect, would be more receptive than Beebe to changing our system of highway governance. Hutchinson will get more votes in the suburban metropolitan areas that would benefit from having highway money follow cars and people rather than get divvied up equally among five constitutionally independent commissioners representing antiquated geographic districts. Beebe will depend on voters in rural areas, who like the way we do it.
Here Asa is almost in the right. Letting highway money follow traffic would be logical progress. But repealing the Mack-Blackwell Amendment to open highway governance to the direct influence of elected politicians might not be. Witness legislative irresponsibility on the General Improvement Fund.
One other thing: A lot of these conservative Democratic state legislators are, truth be told, Republicans. Unlike the independent-minded and combative Huckabee, Hutchinson would be the kind of Republican governor who would seek to galvanize all conservative support and build a conservative Republican Party around it. We might see party switching in a Hutchinson era. That’s what happened years ago in Alabama and Mississippi. Conservative Democrats were given a viable alternative.
All of that is to say more is at stake this year than has been at stake for four decades. Change, for one thing. Progress, for an altogether different thing.
Ernest Dumas is off this week, thus the second Brummett column. Dumas’ column will return next week.