Columns » Max Brantley

Arkansas gets a new governor

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Gov. Jim Guy Tucker was a rock unto the end. The weekend before a federal jury branded him twice a felon, he strolled the midway at Riverfest, greeted the Olympic torch, visited a neighborhood block party and policy wonked it up with a now meaningless discussion of income tax reform.

He was rock solid, too, as the verdicts were read, a twinge of what looked like disgust turning up the corners of his mouth. As the jurors who convicted him filed from the room, he offered them only his chiseled profile. No eye contact.

Again, outside the courthouse, the governor was controlled, if silent, as he shepherded his wife and two daughters through a forest of TV cameras into a waiting unmarked police car. Questions rained about him. An angry protester shouted maniacally.

And, finally, a couple of hours later, beneath the portraits of Arkansas governor's great and small, Tucker had a great moment. He paid tribute to his wife and friends, proclaimed his innocence, vowed to appeal and succinctly announced he would step down by July 15.

He has never stood so tall.

Tucker's resignation, which spares the state a legal battle over his right to hold the seat, presented Lt. Gov. Mike Huckabee with an opportunity to stand tall, too. He rose to the occasion, though he could have transcended it by announcing an immediate withdrawal from the race for U.S. Senate. He can be complimented, just the same, for his even tone, his sympathy for the Tucker family.

Soon enough, Huckabee must end the speculation. One of his first duties as governor will be to call an election to fill his vacated lieutenant governor's chair. Should he continue with a race for Senate, that election might well prove to be a race for governor-in-waiting. Potential candidates need to know his plans.

National Republicans will encourage Huckabee to stay the course. They need Huckabee to hold onto a Senate majority.

State Republicans would like Huckabee to drop out of the Senate race. What better for party building than a Republican governor? And so what if Democrat Winston Bryant wins the Senate race against a substitute GOP nominee? Governor Huckabee would at least be able to appoint a Republican as replacement attorney general.

Huckabee's desire to run for U.S. Senate need be delayed only a couple of years, after all. U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers' seat will be on the ballot in 1998. You'd have to like Gov. Huckabee's chances should Bumpers retire; maybe even if he doesn't. Clinton won't be on the ballot to rally Democrats.

In the end, the decision will be personal. And the prediction here is that Huckabee will, in time, withdraw from the Senate race. It is simply the right thing to do. Huckabee can do no less than Tucker did.

Print headline: "Arkansas gets a new governor" May 31, 1996.

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