Columns » John Brummett

Asa and Mike meet again

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Asa Hutchinson spoke last in the gubernatorial debate Friday before the Arkansas Press Association at the Arlington Hotel. That’s always an opportunity for a sucker punch, meaning an allegation to which your opponent can’t respond.

Hutchinson’s theme in those closing comments was that he had outlined clear positions, but that Mike Beebe, the Democratic candidate, hadn’t. Hutchinson mentioned rural schools and charter schools and merit pay for teachers.

I waited. And waited. But Hutchinson never got around to saying — either in that closing statement or during the meat of the debate earlier — that he had a clear position on abortion and that Beebe didn’t.

Strange. Abortion had been foremost on Asa’s mind when he and Beebe last met before newspaper people a month ago at the Associated Press Managing Editors gathering in Pine Bluff. That day, Hutchinson pronounced himself pro-life and said Beebe was trying to wiggle. Beebe’s attempted finesse on those words, choice and life, had been the very obsession of Asa’s campaign blog for several days.

I asked Hutchinson why he’d left out abortion. Surely, I said, it had been on the tip of his tongue to declare in his litany of differences with Beebe that Beebe hadn’t said one or the other — pro-life or pro-choice — and to dare him to pick.

“There’s plenty of time left,” Hutchinson said.

That ought to give you something to look forward to.

It is a long and successful Arkansas tradition for candidates to avoid specifics. Dale Bumpers got elected governor saying nothing. Asked once if he was wishy-washy, Dazzlin’ Dale said maybe.

I’ve said that Beebe’s abortion position is pro-choice. He hasn’t corrected me. But I rather think that if you asked him point-blank in front of audience if he was pro-life or pro-choice, he’d answer yes.

So far as I know, Beebe says one thing on abortion. He’d simply prefer not to have that one thing pigeon-holed by divisive standard labeling. That’s what drives Asa up the wall. He doesn’t want Beebe pulling a Mark Pryor on him.

Spared any cornering on abortion, Beebe performed well except when he got heavy-handed ridiculing Hutchinson’s misstatement of fact. Beebe spent 20 years in the legislature as the smartest or second-smartest guy in the room. But he probably shouldn’t talk to his gubernatorial rival the same way he’d call down a bureaucrat testifying before his committee. “Thanks for the lecture,” Asa responded.

Hutchinson did all right except when he said that the official opinions of the attorney general reflect the attorney general’s personal opinion. They most certainly do not, and must not. They are official interpretations of law. Hutchinson seems desperate for any straw to try to corner Beebe. We can be thankful that Hutchinson isn’t attorney general, in which case he’d apparently throw out the law and impose his personal will.

The best and truest line of the debate was Hutchinson’s. When a newspaperman asked whether the candidates would promise to veto any bill affecting the Freedom of Information Act that the Press Association didn’t like, and after Beebe answered quite appropriately that that would depend entirely on the bill, Hutchinson said, “I’m not above pandering, but I can’t go that far.”

I appreciate candid, self-effacing humor. And I’m obliged to say that Hutchinson is indeed not above pandering, as his loony idea to open unrestricted charter schools across rural Arkansas — maybe in Paron — demonstrates.

But then I’m obliged to note that a Pulaski County judge granted a temporary restraining order last week to keep Paron open pending a resolution of its lawsuit.

Political pandering is made to appear less so by judicial sanction, even if the judge made a screwy ruling that surely won’t hold up.

If affirmed, this ruling would inject bus-ride distances as issues all over the state. Forget consolidation. You might have to create additional schools deep in the hills, further diluting the education dollar and curriculum.

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